Paul W. S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror remains, to this day, a divisive picture. Almost unanimously condemned as a crass, clumsy and predictable contribution to the genre; Event Horizon receives little time from serious critics. It is, however, my biggest and guiltiest cinematic pleasure.
In short, the film takes after the Alien (1979), Solaris (1972) and later Sunshine (2008) format of spaceship horror. A crew are sent to investigate a distress beacon from the Event Horizon –– a ship capable of interstellar flight –– that has long since been missing. It has retuned from the edge of our known universe and appears unmanned; tasking the rescue team with damage assessment on an intergalactic scale.
The frights are fairly obviously choreographed. An invisible parasite, not dissimilar to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) now haunts the ship, whilst a paper trail alludes to the fate of those originally aboard. Anderson purposely sidesteps from explaining too much here, leaving the fragmented and jarring fate of this crew relatively unexplored –– only to receive ham-fist conclusions towards the end. For this reason, I believe the general criticism regarding the film’s writing to be rather fair. It is inconsistent and at times feels as if it was written on-set.
But as the crew explore the ship, there is a tangible sense of horror. Laurence Fishburne establishes himself well as the stubborn Captain Miller, at odds with the irrational designer of the Horizon, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neil). They’re joined by a sortie of apathetic space servicemen who all, in turn, lose their minds aboard the ship. Although none of the characters feel particular inventive: the stern military man and obsessional scientist are hardly new arcs, they drive the narrative adequately enough. The downfall, it seems, is that the focal point is about them: their inner turmoil and subsequent breakdowns.
‘This ship […] knows my fears, it knows my secrets!
It gets inside your head and… it shows you!’
The crew are possessed with little nuance; the mix of cabin fever, repressed trauma and imploding personal chemistry feels too abrasive to be particularly meaningful. The themes it touches upon, however, prove powerful. Where the Horizon has been, what it has brought back and how it is presented. Indeed, my affection towards this film is not for its overarching tale. But rather the fleeting moments that occur inbetween. The artistic direction, the editing and the overall tone that can be extracted –– and celebrated –– despite the murky shell that embezzles it.
To call this film a ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ is an understatement. It scatters a number of great ideas throughout its ninety minute running time. The film’s aesthetics represent a good example. The use of colour and baroque set design is surprisingly inspired. With an emphasis on drab greys and greens, its colour palette reinforces the gritty, industrial feel that Kubrick and Scott established. The interiors throughout the ship(s) compound this further: with an enclosure that accommodates the mental episodes that soon escalate. But there is something more creative within this backdrop. It exhibits a strange gothic quality. The Event Horizon is part haunted house, part heavy-metal show. The winding corridors are perhaps a given, but the fabled ‘gravity drive’ is truly a design of its own. This spiralling, spike-laden velodrome leads to the unsightly death of one of the crew members. It also becomes the set-piece for Dr. Weir’s final all-work-no-play breakdown. Its presence is deeply menacing: an unconventional device with a fitting appearance. It extenuates the Oppenheimer quality as well, being a transgressive work of science. It all goes to serve what faults this picture: an important but hardly vital piece of set design seems to have incurred more thought than the screenplay surrounding it.
Another point of contention regards the Horizon’s disappearance. Whilst the film proposes a realistic science fiction aesthetic –– it’s more Silent Running than Star Wars –– the Horizon’s absence beyond the known universe descends into something more spiritual. In the simplest, spoiler-inducing sentence: such a place is hell. Or, indeed, some scientific derivative of it.
‘She’s been to a place you couldn’t possibly imagine. And now it is time to go back. […] Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse’
This inversion of perceived realism may be a cop-out. I’m not entirely sure how well it fits with the film that its first half attempts to set up. I do think, however, that it works remarkably well in isolation. In fact, it’s precisely why I feel to defend it. In essence, the rescue team learn of this through recorded material in the Captain’s Log; a grotesque and harrowing sequence where the original crew are tortured by whatever inter-dimensional zeitgeist took hold of it. Albeit the eye-ripping captain to the violently sexual images around him: this sequence does not hold back. He then pans to the camera and recites verses of Latin –– an ancient language in 2016 –– least not for the film’s in-date of 2047. It’s a memorable and damning scene. We are given hints to a haunted presence in anticipation to this, but nothing with such severity.
‘I thought it said liberate me, save me. But it’s not me. It’s liberate cute me: save yourself. And it gets worse. […] I think that says ex inferis. Save yourself… from hell.’
This use of ritualistic, satanic discourse works well with its unabashed gore. The ship had been to hell and the dissonance between the cold reality of the Horizon with this perverse, graphic force it brought back is jarring. It also offers enough to shock without exposition. For the lack of a better phrase: this sequence is entirely fucked up. The textbook ’cause and effect’ horror structure allows it to throw the audience without asking too many, plot-hole inducing, questions.
This is further refined by the editing. Flashbacks from the possessed Dr. Weir throw half-frame snippets of the tortured crew: with maggots, blades and sadomasochism to boot. It’s almost a useful exercise to watch this picture with your finger on the remote. Recently, internet forums have capitalised upon its darker imagery, deeming it ‘uncut’ and ‘unseen’ footage from the potentially better film it could have been. These images, however, are not new. They are merely passed over in a blink of the eye. They’re buried within the same picture that Robrt Ebert considered all ‘style’ and no substance. The same film that garners a 24% Rotten Tomatoes score and that one Washington Post critic remakerd:
‘If you want to have that “Event Horizon” experience without spending the seven bucks, try this instead: Put a bucket on your head. Have a loved one beat on it vigorously with a wrench for 100 minutes.’
Yet it is the very ‘style’ that shines brghtest. These flickering moments of shock –– the quick edits and flashbacks –– coupled with its interesting and eerie artistic design brings a gravitas to any narrative misgivings. It may rely on knuckle-dragging spectacle during its action sequences, but it attains a darkness that few of this genre have reached. It is for this reason I consider moments of satanic imagery, especially in flashback, as rationale to defend this film altogether. It cements the Horizon in a unique and troubling universe.
This approach has deeper cuts. Science fiction antagonists can, rather easily, become caricatures of their former selves. The minute Ellen Ripley jettisoned the Alien from that airlock, its caracas launched into space along with any tension we once felt for it. But a ship that has returned from the bowels of hell, that tip-toes around what it has attained –– which proves to be a Biblical iteration of evil –– is undeniably scary. The presentation of such bolsters it. It gets under your very skin, as this haunted-house comes into its own.
Put simply, Event Horizon merges the fantastical horror and modern science fiction to great avail. The vessel takes on fleshy overtones as it becomes increasingly more alive. Again, the contrast between industrialism and mangled human tissue is both striking visually and thematically. It also succeeds in avoiding the reality of the situation to ignite more fear. Whilst, all the same, incorporating supernaturalism better than the average sci-fi flick. In fact, Event Horizon is in the minority of genuinely throwing me after multiple watches. Not because I care about the characters –– that wears thin rather quickly –– but for precisely this graphic content. It presents the unpresentable, the oldest of all evils, with enough vibrance and aurora to maintain dramatic effect.
Event Horizon is, quite frankly, a curious picture. And note I’m not ranking it alongside the Blade Runners and Space Odysseys of the world in writing this. But when it descend into its darkest moments, it does so with a ferocity that deserves high merit. The themes it flirts within the process of Dr. Weir’s questionably-written breakdown are little short of tremendous. It’s also a damn entertaining film. I feel critics overlook that as a mind-numbing escapism –– perhaps Anderson’s forte given his later work –– it’s a bloody good movie.
Yet it remains something unique in my eyes. A rough mix of sci-fi and horror that reaches some truly gut-wrenching moments. A lacklustre screenplay, sure, but coupled with fantastic artistic direction. And as rumours circulate regarding the now lost Director’s Cut –– a darker, X-rated redux –– I can’t help but wonder what this film could have been. Nevertheless, for what it is, Event Horizon is worthy of your time. The product of a director clearly in an experimental phase. One, perhaps, trying to put his name on the in-traversable sci-fi/horror map. And whilst it is far from perfect, there is some eloquence in the flaws that bestow it.
Indeed, Event Horizon is more than a ‘good-bad movie’. I also wonder if I’m being harsh calling it a guilty pleasure: the very parameters of guilt are set by a cork-sniffing critical reception. I won’t deny it’s shortcomings, but I will celebrate it’s triumphs all the same. Event Horizon has a truly contagious quality to it. One that I happily re-watch from time to time. It’s a enigmatic experience above all else, with a design and tone that sits with you long after the credits roll. Which perhaps leads to the most pertinent conclusion of all about Event Horizon: ‘it gets inside your head’.