Caution: This review is not for the spoiler-squeamish
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Paul W.S. Anderson’s mad foray into the deepest reaches of space (and elsewhere), Event Horizon. Anderson gets a lot of flack these days for providing the world with Resident Evil after Resident Evil, but back in the mid ‘90s, he was a particularly sought-after director, turning down shots at X-Men and Alien: Resurrection. When Paramount sent him the script for Event Horizon, Anderson was excited at the prospect of crafting a ghost story as impactful as The Shining or as timeless as The Haunting. He eagerly accepted the offer to direct the film, and began work on what he hoped to be an unwavering horror masterpiece.
Critical reception of the film was little more than “meh” (Roger Ebert even gave it 2 out of 4 stars), and for quite some time, it couldn’t escape accusations of being too familiar and derivative. It draws obvious comparisons to Alien and Solaris, but Event Horizon does have more to offer than just that. Not only does it have uniquely memorable visuals (demonic torture orgy, anyone?), it’s a story that keeps its audience engaged despite its weaknesses. And, one of the best things about it is that it doesn’t rely on space movie tropes; in fact, it actually reinvents one of them.
Space salvage ship Lewis & Clark is headed to Neptune on a mission the crew doesn’t know much about, and since they were supposed to be on leave, they aren’t exactly keen on their assignment. They soon learn from the scientist joining them on their trek that they have been commissioned to answer a distress call from the long-missing ship, Event Horizon. Dr. Weir (Sam Neill) explains that he designed the ship with the ability to create a black hole, thus giving her the capacity to travel large distances in seconds. Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) leads his crew aboard the Event Horizon, where the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her crew – along with that of the ship’s foreboding gravity drive – is unveiled piece by piece amidst surmounting tension experienced by the search party themselves.
There’s a finesse in Event Horizon that really makes the viewer want to know more. Weir reveals early on that the ship herself was a secret government project, and the widely-accepted story about her fate is false. Already, intrigue is established at the mention of a possible government conspiracy – what is this story going to be? An alien cover-up? A horrific science-gone-wrong story like the Philadelphia Experiment? The puzzle is hastened when bio-scans of the ship indicate that life is there; however, no actual vital signs from a person are picked up on the scanner. So, when the crew of the Lewis & Clark board the Event Horizon, the audience is with them. Captain Miller and his team are cautious, yet curious, and the audience is immersed in everything they feel. In part, this is due to the intricate set design inside the Event Horizon – especially the long “meatgrinder” hallway leading to the ship’s engineering section, which, inspired by Dante’s Inferno, is as disorienting as it is menacing.
And, there are little nods peppered throughout to help the viewer along, as with the Dante reference, and with Dr. Weir himself, who was named for 16th century Dutch occultist Johann Weyer. But the most recognizable piece of symbolism lies in the name of the ship. An event horizon is the area immediately surrounding a black hole – a point of no return, if you will. Many new-agers refer to an event horizon in a spiritual sense: imagine that the black hole is enlightenment, and the event horizon is the tipping point leading you there. In the case of Event Horizon, however, the spiritual awakening isn’t one of hope and wisdom – it’s one of darkness and abject despair. “It shows you things…horrible things,” Justin says. “The dark inside me from the other place.” These “horrible things” are entirely that; Justin (Jack Noseworthy) is the only member of the Lewis & Clark crew who physically crosses through the fluid abyss that is the gravity drive to experience the Hell dimension firsthand, and he’s so affected by it that he’d rather put himself outside the airlock. “If you could see the things I’ve seen, you wouldn’t try to stop me,” he says to the pleading Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) as she tries to talk him down. At key moments during the film, the audience is given quick glimpses into the Hell dimension – those disturbing and gory images are Anderson’s tribute to the nightmarish hellscapes painted by notable 16th century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. And those images are so powerful that they do most of the shaping of people’s memories of the film.
Some may argue that these references make the film predictable, but in science fiction especially, filmmakers have to do some major consideration in order not to alienate an audience. Event Horizon walks that tightrope skillfully, providing the viewer with enough of the familiar so as not to seem too cerebral to follow, but also enough of the smart stuff to keep curiosity raised. Sure, it seems silly that Weir is explaining space-time to a crew of people who are doctors in their own right (you would at least have to understand physics and mechanics at even a base level before becoming a part of a spaceship crew), but that expository is useful and non-insulting to the viewer. Sure, there are enough stories about space madness that the audience can expect the characters to endure hallucinations, but what’s different here is it isn’t a story that toys with the audience in order to keep them guessing about whether or not the characters really are going mad. Event Horizon states very plainly that there is some crazy, whacked-out stuff going on, and the fun part is being along for that ride.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, sentient ship computer HAL 9000 kills the crew of the Discovery One when he cannot resolve a conflict in his programming. Although effectively creepy and foreboding, 2001 presents an age-old tale of AI turning against man, and man fighting back. What Event Horizon does differently is that the ship is alive – not because of a rogue AI, not because of singularity. Once the ship crosses into another dimension, it’s almost as if she’s possessed, like she’s been doused in evil inter-dimensional goo and come to life. All the hallucinations experienced by the crew members, all the manifestations of their own personal regrets and guilt, they all seem to permeate from the ship’s otherworldly gravitational drive. The ship is now a character – not cold and calculated like HAL 9000, but strange and nearly organic, giving the film an almost Lovecraftian feel. Even though the ship can’t speak like an AI can, she speaks by playing with the crew’s minds. The ship exploits people in the most insidious of ways, manipulating them to feel their absolute emotional worst – which is entirely more horrific. This departure from typical sci-fi is partly what makes Event Horizon so unique.
The desire to explore is an integral part of human nature, from sailing the open seas to probing beyond the confines of the universe. What Event Horizon does correctly is it takes the idea of space exploration and expands it to the ultimate unknown: the theoretical. Much of science fiction revolves around mad science and the idea that man shouldn’t meddle with things he can’t understand. Of course this is relevant to Event Horizon, with Weir being the focus. Man has always been greedy about knowledge, letting the pursuit of it hinder his judgement. The consequences of which may be his downfall, and in this film, they most certainly are. Weir, tasked with designing the ship how-many-ever years ago, is too obsessed with his work to see that he is neglecting his emotionally fragile wife. His grief over her eventual suicide has haunted him for years, and is a contributor to his breakdown of self. Weir hallucinates that his wife is there by his side, beckoning him with whispers of, “Be with me. Forever.” The audience knows it’s the ship manipulating him, but he is too weak to overcome her allure. As the story progresses, Weir becomes more and more a part of the ship, giving himself over to whatever Evil has brought her to life. The turning point comes when Miller proclaims that as soon as the Lewis & Clark are a safe enough distance away, he plans to fire missiles at the ship until “[he’s] satisfied she’s vaporized.” Weir goes into protection mode, putting the life of the ship above anything or anyone else. Somewhat in a trance, he sabotages the salvage crew’s only hope for getting back home. Event Horizon is, in essence, a chilling cautionary tale of not letting your work consume you. Because when your ship has been to Hell and back, she might literally consume you.
Twenty years later, Event Horizon feels just as new and engaging as it did upon its initial release. The resonance is due in large part to thematic coherence, which is something that arguably a lot of genre films lack. Event Horizon is a compelling work of art, rising above accusations of derivative storytelling – the scope of which lies in Paul W.S. Anderson’s dark (and gory) vision. The film’s influence is undeniable: take a look at 2002’s Ghost Ship or 2007’s Sunshine. These types of stories are timeless, told over and over, because they scratch at an itch intrinsic to us as humans. As long as there is an unknown to explore, films like Event Horizon will resonate with us.