B-Movie Inspiration: Harbinger Down (2015)

Harbinger Down (2015)

I am a sucker for a movie inspired by Alien or The Thing.  Show a sci-fi monster movie and I am there.   I ran across this movie while browsing Netflix, not know anything about it.  The blurb interested me so I started it.  I found out later that this film was Kickstarted by a team that promised a movie with all-practical effects, with as little CGI as possible.  That is what drove me to watch it all the way through.  I am not sure I would have if I hadn’t found that information.

The movie starts out with a short background scene set in the 1980s. A Soviet space capsule is tumbling into Earth’s atmosphere with one cosmonaut on board.   He tried to gain control of the capsule but ultimately fails and the capsule is seen plummeting through the atmosphere partially burning up as it falls somewhere in a frozen tundra.

Cut to a team of scientist preparing to go on some kind of mission.  We find out later that they are studying connections between whale behavior and climate change somewhere near Alaska.  To keep things on the cheap, they are using a crabbing boat called the Harbinger captained by Graff (Lance Henricksen), who happens to be the grandfather of one of the scientists, Sadie.  We are introduced to the rest of the crew, which includes several distinct and interesting personalities, including the gruff Inuit, loud and funny African American, big and tall guy, Russian semi-sexy girl that might have a testosterone imbalance, and the obligatory handsome guy that has an interest in the granddaughter.

We meet the scientists as they set up their “complex equipment.” There are basically three – Sadie, the asshole lead from the university, and the another young student helping with the study.  The ship’s crew crab by night, and the scientists perform their study during the day.  One evening while looking over their data, Sadie spots something that leads to a very interesting discovery – the crashed remains of the Russian capsule.

Long story short, there is something else on board the capsule, which is surprisingly determined to be a moon lander.  They find the frozen remains of the pilot, which is reasonably intact and not burned.  However, it is infected with some kind of parasite and it eventually begins to infect the crew and take over the ship.  There is also a twist.  As it turns out, the Russian crew woman is more than just a fisherman – she’s a spy who knew they would come across the capsule somehow.  She set up bombs on the ship to destroy the creature that has no infested the whole ship and plans to escape by a nearby Russian sub she has been in contact with.  Synyster Russians!

I can’t write about this movie without going into the creative idea behind the creature.  It is like cross between The Thing  and Alien, more the former than the latter.  But it is a human creation.  Apparently in the 80s, the Russians were working on ways to create better cosmonauts through genetic and bio engineering, using DNA from various obscure insects – primarily a creature called a Tardigrades (also known as water bears or moss piglets). However, the radiation of space travel and its long imprisonment in ocean ice caused severe mutations.  This results in a ooze that liquefies the host and reshape into however it feels like, based on the DNA is has absorbed.  If one gets splashed by the goo in anyway, he or she become infected by the parasite, which begins to liquify their flesh and join it with the rest of the goo on the ship. This creature can reform into all kinds of wicked and horrific creature combinations that practical effects can create.

While investigating this creature with the science equipment, there is a great reveal scene that includes these lines:

Ronelle – “It is showing the DNA of more than one species.”

Big G – “This is no good”

Sadie – “Seawater carries the DNA of everything that lives and dies in it, from bacteria on up…”

Ronelle – “These things have been basking in a DNA soup for who knows how long.”

Sadie – “They’ve absorbed the DNA of hundreds of species.”

They go on to say that the mutated tardigrades can liquify and replicate organs, blood  and tissue as well as recode DNA!  Very cool concept!

It gradually absorbs just about every crew member, as well as two tons of crabs the ship was carrying, creating some great creature moments on screen.  Some are very obviously homages to scenes from Alien or The Thing.  The movie proceeds as one would expect with a final survivor escaping death as the ship is destroyed and the creature rendered into a non-threatening state (for lack of a better description) … until next sequel.

This is an RPG adventure one shot waiting to happen.  In fact, I am writing something right now that will most definitely be heavily influenced by this.  Here are the potential plots and aspects of the movie I liked.

Cold War connection – Any connection to the Cold War or either World War can draw me in.  The aspect of the Moon lander really intrigues me and adds some good depth to the story. The Soviets secretly landed on the Moon?  Are there other cosmonauts with this parasite on the moon?  Did the establish a base?  Was it really the radiation that mutated it or something else on the moon?

Genetic Engineering of Obscure Creatures – Science is awesome! The things they are messing around with today can be a great inspiration for stories.  Just read into the science behind the tardigrade, and you will find what inspired this movie in part.  It takes a little work but digging into real life science theories can bring about great adventure.

Isolation – I have written about this before but I live that it is isolated in the cold arctic (a lot The Thing) onboard a crabbing ship (a la Alien).  You can not get more isolated than that.  A good one shot can take place in such isolation if designed well.