On Event Horizon

I have literally seen Event Horizon dozens of times, directed by  Paul W. S. Anderson. According to joblo‘s article, “The UnPopular Opinion: Event Horizon“:

16 years ago this August, a movie hit theaters during the twilight of the summer and starred Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, and Jason Isaacs and was designed to be “THE SHINING in space”. It proceeded to gross an abysmal $47 million worldwide and hit a nice 23% on Rotten Tomatoes. This movie Despite this, director Paul W.S. Anderson went on to direct several more films including the classics SOLDIER, RESIDENT EVIL and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. Okay, so that last line was bullshit, but the movie I am talking about, EVENT HORIZON, actually was a damn good flick and likely the best of Anderson’s career.

Now, some may say that calling this Anderson’s best is akin to saying someone is the tallest midget, but I have always found EVENT HORIZON to be a well made horror movie hiding under a science fiction premise. The horror reminds me greatly of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and the writings of Clive Barker. Even Danny Boyle’s excellent SUNSHINE borrows their villain from EVENT HORIZON. So, to say this film is in good company would be an understatement. What weaknesses it has it makes up for as a stylish popcorn flick.  Do you disagree?  Let us discuss.

EVENT HORIZON is a movie that starts out using the age old horror cliche of a haunted house, except here instead of a house it is a spaceship.  A craft that mysteriously disappeared has suddenly returned seven years later abandoned close to the planet Neptune.  The crew ordered with venturing to the Event Horizon is led by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne).  Along with his crew and the creator of the Event Horizon, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), they journey to the ship and begin their mission.  What they find is the remnants of a bloody massacre and none of the original crew.  After bizarre circumstances cripple their ship, all are forced to board the Event Horizon where hell, literally, breaks loose.

The resulting hallucinatory visions endured by the crew truly are reminiscent of the visions experienced by Jack Torrance in THE SHINING.  They are a mixture of ideal dreams, memories of loved ones, and an undercurrent of horrifying Lovecraftian abominations.  One by one, the crew begin to get picked off by the entity that consumed the Event Horizon and it’s crew.  The origins of this being are left vague: was it an alien creature, something from a parallel universe, or true monsters from beyond space and time?  We are left to question, like any good ghost story, whether our protagonists are free of their torment or just temporarily keeping it at bay.

The critical consensus on EVENT HORIZON was that it was derivative and unoriginal.  I find that it still holds up incredibly well today as a great example of how to make a horror movie.  The ornate and gothic spaceship may remind you of the designs of vessels in the ALIEN films, but they also feel wholly their own.  The ship’s gravity drive with it’s huge spinning orb and cavernous chamber may remind you of some of the settings in the HELLRAISER movies, but it also provides a key location in the film that is both a safe zone and a frightening catacomb.  Throughout the movie you are reminded that this is set in outer space and yet almost the entire film could be transplanted to a house on a hill in any country and it would still work.  Some may consider that derivative but I consider that quality filmmaking.  This isn’t JASON X where you are simply putting a slasher movie in space, EVENT HORIZON successfully takes a story that could have been told on Earth, moves it to a science fiction setting, and the film works.

EVENT HORIZON never tries to be more than a fun time at the movies. Paul W.S. Anderson eventually lost his way as a filmmaker when he decided that his style was all that he needed and failed to deliver a satisfactory screenplay.  Writer Phillip Eisner and an uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker populate EVENT HORIZON with character types that are fleshed out by quality actors. Laurence Fishburne is solid as our stoic captain, Joely Richardson is well placed as his second in command, Jason Isaacs plays his small role as the ship’s doctor with his expected gravitas, and the great Sam Neill is perfect as the conflicted scientist who succumbs to the madness within his creation.  EVENT HORIZON came one year after Sam Neill’s turn in John Carpenter’s vastly underrated IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.  Both of those movies make one hell of a scary movie double feature.

When I think about movies like EVENT HORIZON failing at the box office and then becoming cult classics on DVD, it makes me wonder what didn’t grab the viewer during the theatrical run of the film.  EVENT HORIZON has all of the hallmarks of a great horror movie and the cool factor of a science fiction thriller.  Granted, when your leading actors are a pre-MATRIX Fishburne and the guy from JURASSIC PARK, you aren’t exactly selling the cool factor to the average movie-goer.  Plus, the R rating likely kept the teenagers who would have otherwise flocked to the film.  We can ponder all of the reasons why it failed, but I do not believe it is as a result of the movie itself.

EVENT HORIZON is a gory film, but not as much as you would think.  Yes, there are disturbing images that flash on the screen, but the movie is not simply a collection of sharp musical cues designed to make you jump at the right time.  Yes, it does have those moments, but it also is a well crafted tale that calls into question what is real and what is insanity.  I still wonder at the end of the movie if what we witnessed was what really happened.  Did the crew die at the hands of a crewmember who went crazy or did something supernatural overtake them?  The good movies are the ones that keep you guessing and EVENT HORIZON will stick with you long after the credits roll.

Finally, according to Den of Geek‘s article, “Looking back at Event Horizon“:

Even the biggest fans of UK director Paul W.S. Anderson will surely admit that he’s made some decidedly iffy films over the years, culminating in his latest computer effects outing, the headache-triggering Resident Evil: Afterlife. But before Afterlife and the even worse Aliens Vs Predator, way back in 1997, he directedEvent Horizon, which is arguably his best movie to date.

Featuring a strong ensemble cast, including Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill and Joely Richardson, it was a post-Alien sci-fi horror about a group of space travellers who, upon receiving a distress signal from the stricken ship Event Horizon, head off towards Neptune to investigate. Upon arriving, they find the vessel, once used to test an experimental gravity drive, apparently empty.

Gradually, however, weird things begin to happen among the shadowy corridors of the ship. Rescue team member Justin (Jack Noseworthy) is sucked into the mysterious, inky vortex of the Event Horizon’s gravity drive, while elsewhere disturbing footage is found that hints at the fate of the ship’s previous inhabitants, suggesting that they had killed each other in some kind of demonic mania.

It soon transpires that the Event Horizon’s drive is the source of a form of inter-dimensional evil, and one by one the rescue team are driven to the brink of insanity by visions of their individual worst fears.

Doctor Weir (Sam Neill), the scientist who designed the ship, is the worst afflicted. And just as Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and the rest of the team prepare to destroy the Event Horizon and make their escape, a horribly disfigured Weir steps into prevent them, and when Weir says “you can’t leave,” you have to believe him.

It could be argued, of course, that Event Horizon is little more than an amalgam of numerous other sci-fi and horror films, a grim stew of Alien, Solaris, Forbidden Planet, The Shining and even Roger Corman’s trashy effort Galaxy Of Terror.

What makes Event Horizon more than just a derivative rip-off, however, is the quality of its design and production. The ship is a baroque, cavernous haunted house of echoing walkways and long shadows, while the gravity drive is a brilliantly conceived piece of mechanical evil.

Then there’s the quality of cast, which is a definite cut above the usual slasher-in-space fare such as Hellraiser IV: Bloodline and Jason X. Laurence Fishburne lends the film a weighty, dependable presence, while Sam Neill is brilliant value as the scientist whose demeanour steadily changes from terrified to out-and-out evil.

You could argue, I suppose, that the script is a little ropey in places, even after its uncredited revision by Andrew Kevin Walker, and that its resemblance to other films makes it a little predictable in places. The film’s insistence that there are some areas of science where man shouldn’t venture is also a glaringly archaic sentiment that harks back to the days of Frankenstein.

Nevertheless, Event Horizon remains one of the most well made and, above all, scary horror pictures of the 90s, and certainly one of the most gory mainstream films of the period.

Oddly, however, many critics weren’t terribly kind to Event Horizon, and the movie only managed to amass a twenty-one percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While admitting that the film’s opening was “classy” in his 2000 review, eminent critic Roger Ebert later argued that “The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding.”

Ebert probably has a point here. Like too many suspense and horror films, its ultimate pay-off isn’t as gripping as its build up, but I’d nevertheless argue that, when compared to many other genre pictures, it’s both well made and often surprisingly effective in its shocks.

What’s also notable about Event Horizon is just how influential it has been, in its own minor way, at least.

Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi picture Sunshine began as a fairly measured, even intelligent space exploration story, before descending into areas of schlock horror that seemed markedly similar to Anderson’s movie ten years before it.

Then there’s Visceral’s 2008 videogame Dead Space, whose exercise in intergalactic horror was clearly influenced by the visual style and setting of Event Horizon, as well as other genre touchstones like Aliens and The Thing.

So, while Anderson’s more recent movies have shown little inspiration, often content to cagily restage action scenes from Die Hard or Matrix movies in an endless loop, Event Horizon saw Anderson in a rare moment of creative pomp.

Resident Evil: Afterlife may induce little more than a headache, but Event Horizon was more than capable of delivering a frisson of fear.

F, according to io9‘s article, “All The Reasons Why Event Horizon Is A Hell Of A Good Time“:

The year is 2047, the place is Neptune’s orbit, and the psychological mindfuck factor is off the charts, for the rescue crew aboard the Lewis & Clark. The film isEvent Horizon, named for a long-lost space ship which has maybe been to HELL and back — and it’s one of the most underrated space-horror flicks ever.

Spoilers ahead!

Yes, Event Horizon commits many flagrant fouls when it comes to ripping off other, better films (including, but not limited to, Alien, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Hellraiser, and The Haunting). It has some head-scratching anachronisms (in the year 2047, will paper photographs and CD-ROMs still exist?) and some daffy science, explained away in one quick, gobbledygook-stuffed scene in which Sam Neill’s Dr. Weir is asked by a character as befuddled as the audience, “Do you even speak English?” Upon its release in 1997, it was widely panned, and it tanked at the box office.

But if you can get past those roadblocks and settle in for the ride, Event Horizonis a freakishly gorgeous (set design resembles steampunk crossed with a slaughterhouse), fast-paced (notoriously, then-neophyte director Paul W.S. Anderson was forced to drastically trim his original cut for both time and this-is-too-gory reasons), agreeably dread-filled movie.

It’s further elevated by knowingly over-the-top acting turns by thunderous Laurence Fishburne (who plays the Lewis & Clark’s skipper, Miller, and who brings gravitas to lines like “This ship is a tomb!”) and Neill, who explains theEvent Horizon’s mysterious gravity drive (which “creates a dimensional gateway” via a black hole, allowing it to zip from one point in the universe to another) by folding a page from a girlie mag in half and punching a hole in each side.

So. The Event Horizon’s backstory, slowly sussed out by the Lewis & Clark’s unfortunate rescue posse, is that the seven-years-gone vessel has passed through hell, or a hell-like place (the film is lacking in much religious sentiment), instead of reaching its intended intergalactic destination. And the scenes that feature the missing Event Horizon crew’s eerie final audio transmission — later revealed to have a video component directed a la Hieronymus Bosch, complete with an orgiastic display of violence, flesh-ripping, eye-gouging (there’s a lot of body horror in this movie, and eyeballs get the worst of it), and rantings in Latin, the international dead language of panic and doom — are genuinely unsettling.

But the ship itself, more than the places it’s been or the people who died on it, is the true evil here. Its gravity drive spins and shudders and harbors a sludgy pool leading to infinite darkness, and like some deep-space Philadelphia Experiment, its bulkheads are infused with Things That Should Not Be. Its most terrifying power is its ability to exploit the guilt and fears of characters who keep their feelings close to the surface (like Kathleen Quinlan’s med tech, Peters, who has visions of the wheelchair-bound son she’s left behind on Earth), as well as those whose hang-ups are deeply concealed, like Miller, who’s haunted by a dead crew member he was forced to abandon many missions ago. Worst of all is Weir, who built the Event Horizon and remains obsessed with it, though his workaholic ways contributed to his wife’s suicide, and judging from her ghostly apparitions, she’s still mighty pissed about it.

Simply put, Event Horizon rules because it siphons its frights out of the troubled minds of its characters. Even taking into account the cuts made to Anderson’s original film, enough remains of those characters to make them a crew you care about (except Weir … he’s just a weir-do). So what if it all feels a little familiar? It’s spooky, it has great production design, it’s gruesome, and it features maybe the most honest reaction to supernatural menace in an outer-space movie ever: “FUCK THIS SHIP!” No wonder it’s become a cult classic, and one of our favorites in the genre.

According to Roger Ebert:

The year is 2047. A rescue mission has been dispatched to the vicinity of Neptune, where seven years earlier a deep space research vessel named Event Horizon disappeared. As the rescue ship Lewis and Clark approaches, its sensors indicate the temperature on board the other ship is very cold. No human life signs are detected. Yet there are signs of life all through the ship–some other form of life.

“Event Horizon” opens with a lot of class. It has the detailed space vessels moving majestically against the background of stars, it has the deep rumble of the powerful drives, it has sets displaying persuasive technology, and it even has those barely audible, squeaky, chattering, voice-like noises that we remember from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which give you the creepy feeling that little aliens are talking about you.

I love movies like this. I got up and moved closer to the screen, volunteering to be drawn in. I appreciate the anachronistic details: Everybody on board the rescue ship smokes, for example, which is unlikely in 2047 on a deep space mission where, later, the CO2 air scrubbers will play a crucial role. And the captain (Laurence Fishburne) wears a leather bomber jacket, indicating that J. Peterman is still in business half a century from now. I liked all of that stuff, but there wasn’t much substance beneath it.

What happened to the ship named Event Horizon? Dr. Weir (Sam Neill) may know. He designed the ship’s gravity drive, which looks uncannily like a smaller version of the Machine in “Contact,” with three metal rings whirling around a central core. The drive apparently creates a black hole and then slips the ship through it, so that it can travel vast distances in a second.

Dr. Weir performs the obligatory freshman-level explanation of this procedure, taking a piece of paper and showing you how far it is from one edge to the other, and then folding it in half so that the two edges touch, and explaining how that happens when space curves. The crew members nod, listening attentively. They’re a highly trained space crew, on a mission where space and time are bread and butter, yet they apparently know less about quantum theory than the readers of this review. It’s back to Physics 101 for them.

So, OK, where did the ship go for seven years, and what happened while it was there? Why is the original crew all dead? Unfortunately, “Event Horizon” is not the movie to answer these questions. It’s all style, climax and special effects. The rules change with every scene.

For example, early in the film the Lewis and Clark approaches the Event Horizon through what I guess is the stormy atmosphere of Neptune, with lots of thunder, lightning and turbulence. But once those effects are exploited, the rest of the movie takes place in the calm of space. And although we are treated to very nice shots of Neptune, the crew members never look at the planet in awe, or react to the wondrous sight; like the actors standing next to the open airplane door in “Air Force One,” they’re so intent on their dialogue they’re oblivious to their surroundings.

The obvious inspiration for “Event Horizon” is a much better film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972), where a space station orbits a vast planet. The planet in that film is apparently alive, and creates hallucinations in the minds of the orbiters, making them think they’re back on Earth with their families. Same thing happens in “Event Horizon,” where the crew members hallucinate about family members they miss, love or feel guilty about. But while Tarkovsky was combining the subconscious with the Gaia hypothesis, “Event Horizon” uses the flashbacks mostly for shocks and false alarms (hey, that’s not really your daughter under the plastic tent in the equipment room!).

Because sensors picked up signs of life all over the ship, we assume it has been inhabited by a life form from wherever the ship traveled. But this possibility is never resolved. One of the crew members approaches the gravity drive, which turns into something resembling liquid mercury, and he slips through it and later returns, babbling, “It shows you things–horrible things–the dark inside me from the other place. I won’t go back there!” Perhaps Dr. Weir has the answers. But then again, perhaps not. Without revealing too much of the ending, let me say that Weir presumably knows as little from personal experience about what lies on the other side of the gravity drive as anyone else in the movie. He has not been there. That makes one of his most dramatic statements, late in the film, inexplicable. But then perhaps it doesn’t matter. The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding.

It is observed darkly at one point that the gravity drive is a case of Man pushing too far, into realms where he should not go. There is an accusation that someone has “broken the laws of physics,” and from the way it’s said you’d assume that offenders will be subject to fines or imprisonment. Of course there are no “laws” of physics–only observations about the way things seem to be. What you “break,” if you break anything, is not a law but simply an obsolete belief, now replaced by one that works better. Deeply buried in “Event Horizon” is a suspicion of knowledge. Maybe that’s why its characters have so little of it.

2 thoughts on “On Event Horizon

  1. Pingback: On Man of Steel | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Resident Evil | The Progressive Democrat

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