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Event Horizon Review

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by Chris McEneany May 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

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    Event Horizon Review
    Infinite Space - Infinite Terror

    So ran the tagline for Paul W.S. Anderson's 1997 horror/sci-fi hybrid Event Horizon, a film that took an extremely bold concept, married it up with exceptional production values and a fabulous atmosphere of pure dread, and then scuppered itself with a screenplay that simply ran out of steam and couldn't help but descend into all-too generic B-movie hokum. That it continues to intrigue and excite is to its credit. That it is also infuriatingly vague and ultimately bland, is unforgivable. Anderson has gone on to fashion a genre all of his own - that of beautifully packaged but hollow franchise-fillers. He is a director who invests his life and soul into a project and really tries his damnedest to deliver, and visually speaking, he certainly has created some terrific imagery over the years. But his movies always seem so ... well, shallow, and lacking in spectacle. Oh, there's some eye-candy thrown in - AVP had legions of Aliens swarming a desperate band of Predators atop an awesome pyramid, Soldier saw Kurt Russell sporting the most aggressive flat-top in the galaxy, and Resident Evil had Milla Jovovich in a red dress, and here in Event Horizon, we are treated to some flash-cut, almost subliminal visions of Hell that are as disturbing as they are fleeting - but the set-pieces keep on losing momentum, the characterisation is always stacked with cliché and the narrative has too many stutters and false starts. However, despite containing all of the above, his third film after Shopping and Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon is also his best.

    “A black hole ... the most destructive force in the universe. And you've created one ...”

    Back in 1997 I actually had what I thought was major coup when I had the opportunity to review Event Horizon's theatrical debut for a Liverpool newspaper. Here was a movie that I had been reading about for months in various genre publications, its production providing many amazing and mouth-watering stills, and I was heartily looking forward to a reawakening of the all-out scare-fest in the tradition of Wise's The Haunting, Kubrick's The Shining and, of course, Scott's seminal Alien. It was big, bold, bloody and British. And, inevitably, botched. That it didn't deliver was, I felt, a tragedy, and looming letdown for the genre of galactic proportions. I mean everything seemed in place - a great cast, top-lined by Sam Neill (one of my favourite actors), Laurence Fishburne (intense, though a little overrated), Kathleen Quinlan (who I've had a crush on since Twilight Zone: The Movie) and Sean Pertwee (okay ... he's not so great, but I have a strangely patriotic tendency to want to cheer every time I see him, or Sean Bean for that matter, on screen), an almost faultless concept - the ghost-ship that has literally been to Hell and now wants to return to it with a cluster of new souls - and a shot in the arm of gleeful perversity in the makeup effects that sees us confronted with brief but indelible images of dark depravity. Almost immediately, there was talk of an extended cut of the film, with more gore, and a plot that added much-needed coherence to its roster of random happenings. And, as time went by, this harder cut of the original movie took on the status of myth, almost a fabled version on a par with the infamous lost Spider Pit Sequence from the 1933 King Kong. Rumours abounded when this Special Edition was mooted for release that it may even have been the extended cut, but let me scotch those hopes right here and now - for, apart from having a slightly darker - and more visually rewarding - print than seen previously, this is exactly the same version that you have seen before. But, with regards to the notorious missing footage, all is not lost ... as we will see in due course when we get to the special features.

    “What are you telling me ... that this ship is alive?”

    Forgive me for assuming that you all know the film. Over the years it has certainly made serious inroads into joining the elite club of the cult movie, and whilst there are those that love it, there often appears to be many more that deride it. I, myself, have returned to it many times since that disillusioning cinematic debut, trying to find that elusive factor that makes it stick in the mind. Even now, with a few of its secrets explained to me with this Special Edition, I still can't quite put my finger on why I like it so much. And, for my sins, I do like the film, despite the many faults I'm obliged to detail. The basic plot goes along some familiar territory. Sam Neill plays Dr. Weir, a dedicated astrophysicist who, at the painful expense of his marriage, created a new power source called a Gravity Drive that could literally form its own black hole in space and, thus, punch a craft anywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye. His experimental ship, the Event Horizon (named after the sphere around a black hole at which a travelling object hits the point of no return and time, theoretically, becomes infinite) and its crew opened up such a gateway and then promptly vanished. I mean, come on, what did they expect to happen to it?
    But now, after seven years of cover-up, guilt and the suicide of Weir's wife, the Event Horizon has returned, loitering ominously in the huge gas clouds around Neptune. It is the year 2047 and Weir must travel with the scuttlebutt crew of Rescue/Salvage vessel Lewis And Clark, headed up by Fishburne's taciturn, by-the-numbers Captain Miller, piloted by son-of-a-Time-Lord Pertwee's likeable but ineffective Smith, and manned by Jason Isaacs' dour medic D.J. (“Trauma ...”), Quinlan's homesick technician Peters, Joely Richardson's very unconvincing navigator Starck, Richard T. Jones' wisecracking racial stereotype and official “funky spaceman” Mr. Cooper and jug-eared Jack Noseworthy's colourless ship's mascot, Mr. Justin, on a mission to discover exactly what happened. This is the type of spooky legend that has populated maritime myth for centuries - the ghost ship crewed by the damned. French literature used to thrive on such spectral material. A mysterious message has been received by the stricken craft, full of gasps, cries and shrieks and containing a perplexing line of Latin that may, or may not, be some kind of warning.

    Yes, it is all very familiar, isn't it?

    Anderson and his screenwriter Philip Eisner have taken the Alien play-book and sought to smuggle their own story into Scott's, by now, well-travelled universe. The Event Horizon's crew have undergone a nightmare akin to the poor travellers aboard the derelict ship on LV-426, before the planet had such a name and, consequently, the fate that befell the settlers who then took up residency there in Cameron's sequel. The genre's staple narrative of events then turning full circle to entrap a new batch of victims soon comes into effect once Miller's mob board the phantom ship, find all manner of creepy wreckage - weird bio-scans, floating corpses and so forth - and awaken the psychological and metaphysical beast that has taken hellish possession of it. Only, without resorting to an eight-foot tall, acid-bleeding xenomorph to whittle down the numbers, they opt for spooks, visions and guilt-induced madness to wreak havoc among the crew. The ship knows all their secrets, you see. Yet while these jobbing space-jocks yearn for the realism of attitude and dialogue that the Nostromo's crew had in spades, they just don't portray it with anywhere near the same level of authenticity. Alien set the, admittedly, high benchmark for working-stiffs in space. Peter Hyams' underrated Outland carried the baton. But Eisner's script culls too much from Cameron's slightly corny Aliens to be believable. Richardson, in particular, has some cringe-worthy lines of navigational-jargon that don't sit well, like being “in the pipe ... five-by-five,” and even Pertwee - who should be able to spout sci-fi lingo with aplomb due to the tutelage from his Doctor father - comes up with naff clichéd lines like “getting some heavy chop,” and “cocked, locked and ready to rock.” Oh, puh-leeze! Fishburne, too, quotes Aliens with the scene-building “Alright, people ... listen up” etc, etc. It's sheer laziness, I'm afraid. Eisner is just shouting “Hey, we're in a space movie, so we're gonna say all those things you think we ought to say.” And, worse still, after making an attempt to show his cast as living, breathing, experienced space-hands, he then lets the majority of them simply founder without any sense of development as the story progresses. We are meant to assume that the haunted Event Horizon, having gone to that deep, dark place we call Hell, has brought some of that evil back and can now get inside the crews' minds and make their worst fears a reality.

    Though, sadly, this just results in some very lame ghostly sightings, a clutch of uninspired killings and some lacklustre moments of arbitrary madness.

    Whilst the first half of the film makes a great stab at creating atmosphere and tension, the second act effectively jettisons such redolent dread with a series of inept and disappointing set-pieces. Mr. Justin's airlock debacle (familiar from Outland), the Don't Look Now lifts that do nothing - and don't actually make any sense, either - that sees Peters catching glimpses of her son, and the unbelievable cop-out demise due to a bomb being stowed on-board are just irksome, rather than eerie, tedious rather than terrifying. Only Captain Miller's secret past, which obviously burns its way back to the here and now to plague him, has any real weight. For a story that its makers claim is space's answer to Hill House from The Haunting, or The Overlook Hotel from The Shining, the fear factor is so watered-down as to be positively tepid, once the full demonic forces have been unleashed. Neill's Weir keeps having visions of his dead wife that are supposed to be shocking moments, but Anderson, who can create a palpable sense of unease beforehand, continually fudges them, and other such shock-cuts, by refusing to build upon them. Far too swiftly we are shown what will eventually be the crucial elements that drive Miller and Weir to the brink of madness in the case of the former, and way over it for the latter, and this just defuses the psychological build-up and the sweaty-palm anticipation. When the film should be reaching a terrifying pitch, it just stumbles through assorted happenings that occur without rhyme or reason, the climax, although pretty to look at, ending up terribly unsatisfying and ultimately meaningless.

    “If you could see the things I've seen ... you wouldn't try to stop me.”

    But, there are many saving graces to Event Horizon that have me watching it again and again, despite its woefully un-fulfilling narrative. The production values are incredible. The set-design is absolutely magnificent. We have the believable, lived-in clutter of the Lewis And Clark, the spindly beauty of the Gateway Space Station that Weir awakes upon at the start and some terrific spacecraft designs. The Event Horizon, itself, is simply mesmerising to look at. Famously fashioned on Notre Dame Cathedral, its haunted corridors and galleys are an ecclesiastical relocation to deep space. Check out the cross-shaped windows, the stained-glass appearance of some of the fixtures in the Medical bay and the baroque designs that adorn the walls and the various rooms. Yet, if the religious allegory is prevalent in much of the ship's overall look - we even discover the vessel hanging in the clouds like an upside-down crucifix - the cavernous chamber that houses the Gravity Drive is like something from Torquemada's torture dungeon. The huge gyroscopic Drive is festooned with spikes and other such unpleasant paraphernalia, and it twists and turns about with rhythmic devilishness in the centre of a steel-cocoon that resembles a sado-masochist's wet-dream. It is a dark melding of the medieval and the surreal, with a touch of space-age accessorising. To be honest, none of this is even remotely credible - you just wouldn't design a spaceship like this, no matter how much of a prototype it is - but it doesn't matter when the atmosphere is creates is so rich and foreboding. The photography by veteran Adrian Biddle (2001: A Space Odyssey, Brainstorm, Aliens) is sublime and decidedly creepy. His cameras flow down darkened aisles and shadow-filled halls, taking us through the Event Horizon with such devoted immersion that you would swear you had actually blundered onboard. The visual effects are incredibly striking and still look pretty damn awesome today. That pull-back shot that drags us into space away from Sam Neill as he peers out of his apartment window on the space station further entrances by turning through 720 degrees and going on for almost 45 seconds. An amazing shot mixes that NASA footage with spot-on CG trickery. The copious explosions that rip through hulls and tear ships open like sardine cans are exquisite and the makeup effects executed by Bob (Hellraiser) Keen are wonderfully icky, too. The notorious flash-cut footage of the Horizon's earlier doomed crew engaging in an orgiastic bout of sex and slaughter contains some bizarrely nasty snippets like eye-gouging (actually this element features quite heavily throughout the film), entrails ripped out through the mouth and spiky things making celebrated and grisly journeys through bodies. A burning man phantom is also one of the movie's more famous images. The soundtrack score by Michael (Lethal Weapon) Kamen and techno-band Orbital is a pulsing, pounding and deeply percussive delight. The fusion between Kamen's traditional haunted house orchestrations and Orbital's relentlessly driving tribal beat may not be to everyone's taste, but I love it. The opening theme is fantastic, and there are many moments of marvellously eerie, or ominous scoring that adds immeasurably to the grave atmosphere of claustrophobic horror, especially the cues revolving around the Gravity Drive once it has activated itself once more.

    “I created the Event Horizon to reach the stars. But she's gone much, much further than that. She tore a hole in our universe ... a gateway to another dimension.”

    Thematically and effects-wise, Anderson has crafted a film that is gruelling and intense, yet it does not have the courage of its convictions. Instead of actually taking us where no man has gone before, he opts, unfortunately, to descend into contrivance and cliché, dragging the once-exciting and original plot into B-movie conventions that offer nothing new to an already-crowded genre. Lacking overall coherence and lapsing into trite melodrama and hyperspacial hysterics, Event Horizon's failings can be aimed squarely at Eisner's lame screenplay and Anderson's over-ambitious vision - the two combined leading to creators who were too blinkered to see the wood for the trees. When test screenings gave less than favourable responses in the States to the extreme gore, too-lengthy running time (130 mins at the initial cut stage) and confusing Hell/possession musings, Anderson and regular cohort producer Jeremy Bolt retreated and re-cut the film. Seven-scribe Andrew Kevin Walker was also drafted in for a script polish ... but, in reality, little would change a story that peters out without supplying any satisfying answers, had too many dismal deaths and characters that seem impervious to any audience empathy.

    Yet, still, I like the film. Although I really can't work out why. Part of me even wants to award it more than the 6 out of 10 that I have given it, but, weighing up all the pros and cons, I just don't think that I can. Overall, Event Horizon is an enjoyable enough popcorn-movie ... but the makers certainly wanted it to be something more than that - and it is down to them that it failed to be the big British horror comeback that I, for one, dreamed it would be.