When it’s on: Saturday, 19 December (10.55 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
Sometimes you get to watch a film at exactly the right moment. In 1998 I was working for a big oil company whose name was rhyming slang for ‘sheer hell’. They were in the process of buying out another business and I was part of a team dispatched to Cheltenham to oversee the takeover and continue customer service as normal. Every Monday in the early hours, I caught a train down and came back on Friday night; my week was spent in hotels, all on company expenses. Despite being allowed to spend pretty much what I wanted to, hotel living quickly became a soulless and solitary experience. I did what many people would in my shoes and ate badly, drank too much and ordered films on the TV, which is how I came to be watching Event Horizon one night, a few Budweisers in and ready for some – any! – entertainment. Needless to say, it hit me in the right place – a bit sozzled, on my own in a strange place, few external distractions so that I could become immersed in the atmosphere. I thought it was great, just as terrifying and claustrophobic as it was supposed to be.
And since then I have wondered how much the setting for seeing it contributed to my enjoyment. It’s not as though I think Event Horizon is a bad film, but I really got into it, on a par with Alien, that bona fide science fiction horror classic, and something from which it borrowed at will. By all accounts early discussions about the story involved a physical entity that’s steadily picking off the unlucky crew, until a wiser head alerted everyone to where this was all leading and it was instead resolved to make the ‘evil’ on Event Horizon a vague and intangible presence. This works. It works surprisingly well, and suggests the horrors experienced by the people could be a result of shared delusions brought on by the extreme loneliness and being cut off from the rest of the human race. More recent viewings, and I’ve now watched Event Horizon a number of times over the years, have made it clear that it isn’t as good as I first found it.
It was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, back when he was plain old Paul Anderson (not to be confused with the Paul Anderson responsible for heavyweight modern classics like There Will be Blood and Magnolia) and before he developed a reputation for poor genre cinema. Being generous, I’ve rarely found Anderson to be so bad. There was his utterly dreadful version of The Three Musketeers, a relatively rare instance of trying to track him down and demand not only my money back but also the lost two hours, but I’ve come across worse film makers and there’s a certain level of cinematic artistry to be found amidst the high gore levels and his unfathomable insistence on nightclub/heavy rock music blasting out during the action scenes. Event Horizon marked a definite artistic high point, made when his was an emerging name and the budget attached to the project was a sizeable $60 million. At the time of its release, it flopped both critically and with cinema goers, and it’s time that has improved its reputation. Now it’s considered a cult classic, offering something genuinely unique to the genre and, importantly, being regarded as frightening.
Two elements stand in its favour. The first is its visuals. Event Horizon is set in the near future, when humans have started colonising the solar system and exploring its outer reaches. The ship destined to go father than anyone has gone before is the eponymous Event Horizon, which has been fitted with a prototype faster than light engine. The ship disappears without trace, somewhere in the orbit of Neptune, but then it’s rediscovered there, albeit apparently floating along dead in space. Another vessel, Lewis and Clark, is assigned the happy task of investigating what’s happened, and the team includes Dr Weir (Sam Neill) who invented the revolutionary ‘FTL’ capacity. Weir is shown early, staring out into the ether from a space station above Earth, an astonishing shot as the camera tracks back from his window to take in the man-made body and then the planet below. The effects that reveal the Lewis and Clark and Event Horizon are also very good. For the latter, a 70-foot model was constructed, and what really works is that it looks like a lived-in vessel, a bit grimy, built for purpose rather than to be aesthetically pleasing. You can imagine a future exploration vehicle that’s similar to the Event Horizon, a practical and unwieldy behemoth that’s far removed from the sleek and fun spaceships of science fiction. The ship interiors are well designed too, in particular the ‘gravity drive’, a spinning globe housed within a spiked chamber that already looks as though it’s part of some hell dimension.
The second real highlight is the film’s cast. By chance, Anderson got to work with performers who were either reliable character actors or rising stars. Laurence Fishburne had been active within the industry for some years, and was at this stage moving beyond the string of Spike Lee joints in which he’d figured, developing a reputation for notable, understated work for those who’d managed to catch him in the likes of Deep Cover, but before he found fame as Morpheus in The Matrix. Playing the Lewis and Clark’s leader, Captain Miller, he brings bags of charisma to the role, emerging as likeable despite the script demanding that he do little more than issue orders for much of the film. Clearly the crew respect him, even when things become increasingly desperate. Neill plays Dr Weir like a character who becomes more on edge and giving in to his insanity. Over the years, he’d developed a reputation for being capable at turning his hand to any kind of part, whether villainy or Jurassic Park‘s unlikely action hero, so the complicated role of Weir – a man who has to display escalating levels of madness, the terror of his early moments on the Event Horizon giving way to acceptance and even rapture – is one within which he can convince. Other solid performers, mainly Brits like Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson and Sean Pertwee, make up the remaining crew members. All are given their opportunity to shine and let the personalities of their characters ease out through very little screen time. I especially like Pertwee’s sardonic pilot, and the look of undiluted fear on his face when he realises the game is up for him and there’s nothing he can do about it.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, which follows a fairly standard narrative, suffice it to say I’m really pleased that the mystery at the centre of the plot is never fully resolved. Where the Event Horizon jumped to when it activated the gravity drive and, more importantly, what it brought back, is explained in part but not completely, and whilst Anderson is the kind of director who shows rather than suggests it’s a good decision to let viewers’ imaginations fill in some of the blanks about what’s happened to the ship’s original crew. What we do see is a collage of very quickly edited images of people at the height of madness, all extremely disturbing, and legend tells of several minutes worth of lost of footage that displays in graphic detail the carnage that takes place as a consequence of their visit to ‘wherever’. Fortunately this material is lost, presumably for good, and the film is better for teasing at the gory end of the Event Horizon’s people rather than serving it all up. What remains intact, and here the film’s similarities to Alien come to the fore, is a sense of claustrophobia, of their ships’ thin walls being the only thing that protects everyone from the emptiness and certain death of space. They’re closed in, irritable with each other and suitably spooked by the ghost ship they come across when they access the Event Horizon. It’s this that adds to the film’s tension; when the horrific moments arrive, they’re in a second half rush, the first relying on atmosphere, which is built carefully.
Event Horizon: ***