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EVENT HORIZON (1997)

"I created the Event Horizon to reach the stars, but she’s gone much, much farther than that…."

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Director:
Paul Anderson

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Kathleen Quinlan, Sean Pertwee, Jason Isaacs, Jason Noseworthy

Screenplay: Philip Eisner and Andrew Kevin Walker (uncredited)

Synopsis: In the year 2040, the experimental space craft Event Horizon disappears near Neptune. Seven years later, the crew of the USAC vessel Lewis & Clark is recalled from leave and sent on a top-secret mission. Also on board is scientist Dr William Weir (Sam Neill), who designed and built the Event Horizon. Reviving after fifty-six days in stasis, Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) calls a meeting of his crew so that Weir can explain their mission. Weir reveals that a signal was detected from the Event Horizon. When the crew reacts with incredulity, Weir further explains that contrary to the official story, the Event Horizon did not blow up, but simply vanished. The ship was built with the aim of travelling faster than the speed of light. When Starck (Joely Richardson), the Lewis & Clark’s executive officer, objects that this is impossible, Weir describes the ship’s gravity drive, which allowed it to bend space-time and thus create a dimensional gateway through which it could move from one point in the universe to another instantaneously. As the Lewis & Clark approaches Neptune, it passes through dense cloud and is buffeted by storms. However, the Event Horizon is found intact, and the Lewis & Clark docks with it. Starck scans the ship, finding that the thermal units are offline. She tells Weir that the crew cannot have survived unless they put themselves in stasis. Scanning further, Starck picks up traces of a lifeform, but the scanner malfunctions. Miller orders Weir to stay on the bridge to interpret the crew members’ video feeds, before leading a boarding party. Miller and medical technician Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) inspect the sick bay but find no trace of the crew. Peters moves into the command centre, where she finds a splash of blood on a control panel. In the uncertain light, she does not see that other parts of the room are literally covered in blood…. Weir directs Peters to the ship’s log. She retrieves the disc, then recoils in horror as she turns to find an eyeless, mutilated corpse nearby. Meanwhile, engineer Justin (Jason Noseworthy) has found the ship’s gravity drive: three metal rings rotating about a spherical core. At that moment, Starck loses video contact with him. As Justin watches, the rings line up, forming concentric circles about the core. The next moment, the drive unit blazes with light. When Justin is able to see again, he finds that the centre of the sphere has become a dark, viscous liquid. He touches it tentatively, then presses his hand into it. To his terror, something grabs his arm and drags him inside. Rescue technician Cooper (Richard T. Jones) runs to the scene, but at that moment a surge of power erupts from the drive unit. Cooper is blown across the room, while on the Lewis & Clark, the control panel explodes, triggering a chain reaction during which the hull is breached. Weir, Starck and pilot Smith (Sean Pertwee) take refuge in the airlock, donning pressure suits. Cooper manages to drag Justin back by his tow-rope, and Miller orders his crew off the Lewis & Clark and onto the Event Horizon. Peters activates the ship’s gravity and air supply, but it is discovered that there is only sufficient oxygen for twenty hours. Peters and trauma expert D.J. (Jason Isaacs) treat Justin, while Cooper describes what he saw in the drive unit. Weir dismisses Cooper’s story, arguing that such things could only happen if the drive could activate itself. Under pressure from Miller, Weir explains that when the rings align, an artificial black hole is created, and its power used to open the gateway. Miller orders the drive room sealed off, leaving Weir to do the job; but as Weir begins his work, the unit begins to light up once again…. Meanwhile, Peters has a vision of her crippled son, his legs covered with suppurating wounds; Justin regains consciousness, breathing a terrified warning about the coming of the dark; while Miller is suddenly confronted by the sight of a man engulfed in flames, yet still living….

Comments: In Stephen Hawking’s "A Brief History Of Time", an "event horizon" is defined as the border of a black hole, "the boundary of the region of space-time from which it is not possible to escape". Hawking also comments that, "One could well say of the event horizon what the poet Dante said of the entrance to Hell: ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here’." Given that this sentence was almost certainly the starting point for Event Horizon’s screenplay, it is ironic, and more than a little sad, that the film’s overall attitude to science is best summed up by the character who shouts at scientist William Weir, "Don’t start in with that physics crap!" I began to have a problem with Event Horizon during the scene where Weir attempts to explain his gravity drive to the crew of the Lewis & Clark. First of all, we’re forced to endure the inevitable "comic" sequence when Weir promises to use "layman’s terms" – then launches into a stream of quantum physics. Even more inevitably, the crew members gape at him blankly, while one of them interrupts to ask whether Weir "speaks English". It’s hard to know which stereotype is the more annoying: the "egghead" who’s so obsessed with his work he can’t see past it (this is crap, by the way: science is all about communication, and any scientist who can’t "speak English" isn’t going to have much of a career); or the highly trained aerospace officers who understand none of the theory behind space travel. (And just in case you were wondering – yes, it was the comic relief black guy who interrupted Weir.) Worse is to come, however, with Weir dumbing it down and illustrating how his gravity drive works by folding the ends of a piece of paper together (a pin-up, of course – they’re all just regular Joes!) and poking a pencil through both sheets. It’s not so much this cheesy visual aid that’s the problem here as that the explanation that accompanies it is almost word for word the same as that used for the "infinite improbability drive" from "The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy". Once that image got lodged in my mind, I knew Event Horizon would be facing an uphill battle to re-engage my attention. To its credit, for a while it actually managed it. What makes this film so frustrating in its later stages is that initially it does develop a genuinely interesting premise. The Event Horizon’s reappearance; the question of the unknown "lifeform" detected on board; and the increasingly ugly hallucinations experienced by the crew are mysteries worthy of exploration. In time it becomes apparent that whatever occupies the experimental ship is entering the minds of the crew members and dredging up their worst memories, confronting them with their own guilt and fear. Had the screenplay stuck with this idea, Event Horizon could have worked both as science fiction and as a story of psychological terror, as the characters struggled to overcome themselves. Unfortunately, this intriguing set-up is abandoned about halfway through in favour of gore effects, cheap scares, and lots and lots of explosions. In fact, for all of its elaborate science fiction trappings, Event Horizon ends up being just another horror movie. It is also one of the most derivative films I’ve ever seen. In descending order of importance, it rips off Solaris, Alien, Hellraiser, The Shining, The Haunting, and even, God help us, The Amityville Horror. This list is by no means exclusive – I’ve simply catalogued the more egregious examples. This magpie borrowing might have been excusable if something interesting had been done with the spoils, but unfortunately Event Horizon’s biggest cinematic debt is to all those films where lazy directors and writers took the soft option of grossing their viewers out by waving body parts at them, rather than attempting the much tougher task of engaging their imaginations and actually scaring them.

The early scenes of Event Horizon work quite well. The Lewis & Clark is convincingly grungy and lived-in, and despite the underwritten nature of the film’s characters, the actors are good enough to convince us that they are indeed a team of professionals who have worked together on many missions. The approach to Neptune includes some beautifully shot storm scenes, while the Event Horizon itself is a staggeringly impressive set. Whether it convinces as a space ship is another matter. The vessel is gorgeously designed, all points and cruciform relief, but it is difficult to see the utility in most of this. (The thing is also freaking enormous. Presumably it was assembled in space, but this is never specified.) The rescue ship docks, and a boarding party is sent out. A reasonably suspenseful sequence follows, as Peters moves through the command centre of the Event Horizon, and we see what she at first does not: the remains of the previous crew splattered all over the walls. This scene is then spoilt by heavy-handed direction: as Peters struggles to free the disc containing the ship’s log, the camera starts creeping up on her. Gee, wonder if there’s going to be something there when she turns around? Meanwhile, rookie crew member Justin, whose puppy-dog eagerness has already pegged him as Victim #1, has discovered the ship’s gravity drive. The drive activates in his presence, and he is left confronting a wall of shimmering black goop. He then fulfills his manifest destiny by sticking his arm in it – at which point the first major cracks begin to appear in the film’s credibility. A chain reaction through the two ships causes a breach in the hull of the Lewis & Clark, forcing the crew of the latter onto the Event Horizon, when the fun really begins. Peters has a vision of the crippled son she was forced to leave when called back to duty; while a sudden power drain sends Weir into the ducts of the ship into order to do repairs. This sets up the film’s single most frightening scene, achieved purely through sound and lighting and simple visual effects, as the duct seems to comes to life. Weir then suffers what the audience knows to be an ongoing vision: that of his dead wife, Claire, who like the corpse found on the Event Horizon’s bridge is hideously eyeless. Meanwhile, Justin has regained consciousness, and while undergoing convulsions begins to babble about "the dark inside me"; and Miller is confronted by the crewman whose life he had to sacrifice in order to save himself and others – and who was burnt to death in front of him. When the crew meets to discuss these events, Smith, our regular Joe, opines that, "This ship is fucked." Weir, rapidly descending into full twitchy mad scientist mode, sneers, "Thank you for that scientific analysis, Mr Smith." Smith, understandably, takes a swing at him, and violence erupts as the crew members begins to crack beneath the various pressures exerted upon them.

At this point, while far from perfect, Event Horizon is a film with a lot of possibilities. Unhappily, from here onwards nearly all of these are simply tossed aside. (One that particularly struck me was Starck attempting to explain what’s happening by suggesting that the ship is somehow "alive" and reacting to their presence – in effect, mounting an immune response against them. This notion is immediately dismissed, but it’s a lot more interesting than anything that follows.) Our first clue as to how things are going to go for the rest of the story comes when Justin, unable to cope with the horrors he has witnessed through the gateway, decides to commit suicide. The finding of the eyeless corpse has already allowed for the spectre of everyone’s favourite space boogeyman, "explosive decompression", to be raised. At that stage it is laid, only to rise up again like Lazarus when Justin barricades himself into the airlock. As his colleagues try desperately to talk him out of it, Justin hesitates, then presses the button for the outer door, and the room begins to decompress. (Many people have laughed at films like The Crawling Hand where the spaceships have a "Self-Destruct" button stuck out in the open where anyone could bump it. But at least those were cheap little B-films. What we have here is a film with millions spent on production design – and which yet gives us an airlock control where the "Inner Door" and "Outer Door" touch panels are right next to each other. In space, no-one can hear you say, "Whoopsy!") What follows would be genuinely suspenseful if it weren’t so disgusting. Justin doesn’t explode, but you get the feeling it’s only because the film-makers didn’t think that was gross enough. Instead, we get lots of lovingly shot close-ups of Justin’s veins swelling and bursting, while blood starts to spew from various orifices. A cleverly constructed rescue attempt redeems this sequence somewhat, but we’ve seen the shape of things to come. Shortly afterwards, Peters accesses a visual record of the previous crew’s last moments, and we are treated to the charming sight of these people dismembering each other: blood, limbs, intestines and eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs. (This revolting incident is followed by what I think is an accidental laugh: after viewing the material, Miller pauses for a moment, then remarks, "We’re leaving." A reasonable enough sentiment, but Laurence Fishburne’s matter-of-fact delivery may well surprise a giggle out of the viewer.) The repairs of the Lewis & Clark completed, Miller orders his crew to salvage what they can and return to their ship, unwisely telling Weir that he intends to blow up the Event Horizon. The ship’s response is immediate, and Weir descends into total madness after re-living his wife’s suicide. Simple "madness" isn’t enough, however, and we are therefore made to watch Weir gouging out his own eyes. From here Event Horizon degenerates still further (if you can believe that) into a boring body count film, with death by falling, explosion, and your common or garden disembowelment. Miller finally corners Weir, and discovers that he is blind and scarified, as was the corpse found when the ship was first entered. (I could be ungracious and call Weir a Cenobite, but I guess I’ll leave that to Clive Barker’s lawyers.) We then get the big revelation: that when the Event Horizon first activated its gravity drive, it travelled not to another galaxy, but to another dimension. It has, in fact, quite literally been to hell and back. From the point of view of the film’s structure, this disclosure is the final straw. Obviously, anything could have been made of this plot twist; but all we get are some yawningly familiar gore effects.

Apart from Event Horizon’s depressing descent from intriguing science fiction to same-old-same-old horror, the really annoying thing about it is that the film-makers went to the trouble of assembling a talented and interestingly eclectic cast, and then gave the actors next to no chance of developing believable characters. The two black actors are painfully obviously used. Laurence Fishburne has authority as Miller, but his performance is disappointingly one-note – and for the record, that note is "grouchy". Richard T. Jones deserves better than ending up as "funky comic relief guy". (Note to writers: having characters continue to "talk funky" while facing imminent death is: (i) unbelievable; and (ii) really, really irritating.) The women are similarly divided up. Joely Richardson is the feisty, take-no-crap, mix-it-with-the-guys type, while Kathleen Quinlan is the emotional, maternal one. Quinlan gives a good performance here, which makes the tasteless way her character is manipulated doubly unacceptable. For one thing, it is she who scores the gratuitous "woman in underwear" shot – after all, what Alien rip-off would be complete without one? – when while wearing a crop-top bra and panties, she gets to bend right over and jiggle her breasts directly into the camera. That’s how we meet Peters, and the way we say goodbye to her is in its own way even more sexist. Peters is one of the characters plagued by visions, all of them based on her guilt about leaving her crippled son on Earth. She is ultimately lured to her death by the sight of the child walking. This occurs after the crew have determined that what they are seeing are just hallucinations, and after we’ve seen Miller banish his own demon through sheer force of will. Peters, on the other hand, succumbs to hers immediately, abandoning her mission (on which her colleagues’ lives depend) to chase after what she knows has been sent to harm her.

And then there’s Sam Neill’s William Weir, edgy at first, a raving lunatic at the conclusion. The viewer has Weir pegged from the outset, as we watch him shaving with an extremely shaky hand (and a straight-razor, yet!) while eyeing a dripping tap in that way that screams "unresolved trauma!". To some extent, Event Horizon is a throw-back to the science fiction films of the fifties. The whole story vibrates with suspicion of science and scientists, and the question of whether they are more dangerous when they know what they’re doing or when they do not. Weir’s unshakable delight in the Event Horizon and his gravity drive, and his refusal to believe any of his colleagues’ stories about their experiences on board, move him from the category of "naïve but doomed" right over to "maniacal but doomed". There are hints throughout about Weir’s involvement in the Event Horizon’s journey to "another dimension" - he has visions of an eyeless Claire as soon as he boards the Lewis & Clark, for instance; while the crosses that decorate the Event Horizon are identical to the scars he bears towards the end of the film – but whether the screenwriter was trying to infer that he was a willing participant or simply a tool is difficult to determine. This is not the only underdeveloped aspect of the screenplay. The visions themselves are problematical. Why do only some of the characters have them? Do the others have no fear, or feelings or guilt? Another touch meant to be suspenseful, but which is purely stupid, is the use of a Latin phrase to disguise what’s going on. The recovered final recording of the original crew has a voice saying something that is first translated as "save me"; then as "save yourselves"; then as "save yourselves from hell". It is established that the ship’s captain liked to sign off with a burst of Latin, but really, if you were being dragged down to eternal damnation, would you take the time to translate your last words!? (Hmm….suddenly the Babel Fish comes to mind…. The screenplay is also full of not-so-subtle clues as to future events. A particularly groanworthy moment is Justin’s observation that the rotating corridor leading to the drive room "looks like a meat grinder" (Foreshadowing Flare! Foreshadowing Flare!). Still worse is when Weir and Miller see explosives built into the Event Horizon’s main corridor, and Weir explains that they can be used to separate the two halves of the ship "in case of an emergency" (Foreshadowing Flare! Foreshadowing Flare!). My favourite moment in the film, however, comes when Weir is demonstrating his gravity drive, revealing that it runs by creating an artificial black hole. "A black hole – the most destructive force in the universe!" Starck helpfully explains for the benefit of unscientific viewers, "and you’ve created one!?" All I could think of here was: "You made a black hole! Why?" "I’m a scientist. That’s what we do." And just to fill the cliché quota, Event Horizon ends with a false scare scene. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

Footnote: Sam Neill, for those of you who don’t know, is an Irish-born New Zealander. In Event Horizon, although it is never stated, he seems to be playing an Australian. I say "seems" because the flag on his jacket is a re-working of the current Australian flag, with the Aboriginal flag replacing the Union Jack. There has been some debate in recent times over whether the flag should be changed, and the design used here happens to be the one I personally favour. While it’s nice to see it, I take a certain degree of exception to it being used in such a trivial and ultimately negative way.