Event Horizon (1997)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 December (10.55 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

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: ***

The Prophecy (1995)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 October (9.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

There have been numerous attempts to portray the Devil on screen over the years. Two films in this week’s Halloween run of write-ups feature Old Nick, my favourite coming on Saturday, and personally I prefer my Satan to be a subtle and persuasive presence. You can keep shouty Al Pacino from The Devil’s Advocate. Give me Robert De Niro as a mysterious, sinister Louis Cypher in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart any day, or play him for dark laughs as Peter Cook did in the Faustian Bedazzled.

In The Prophecy, a young, pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen essays Lucifer as an almost businesslike fallen angel, turning up on the unlikely side of the humans because the Archangel Gabriel is trying to capture an unmitigatingly evil soul that will create a second Hell, which is one Hell too many. Beautiful and malevolent, there’s an undeniably sinister aura to his Satan. Everyone who comes across him knows who he is on sight because the Devil is an unmistakable character, and he comes out with outrageous lines like ‘I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk‘ without missing a single beat. Lucifer appears in the film for the last ten minutes, but it’s a brilliant cameo from Mortensen who plays him completely straight and conveys everything that’s both attractive and terrible about the character.

Mortensen is just one member of a finely chosen cast of characters in this movie, a rather silly (but no less compelling) entry about the war between angels spilling over into events on Earth. Eric Stoltz, who always strikes me as one of those perenially ‘under the radar’ actors, plays Simon, a ‘good’ angel who passes on the soul of the cannibalistic General Hawthorne – a veteran of the Korean War who treated the conflict as a personal playground for his atrocities – to a little girl in order to shield it from forces that would use it for evil. Simon might be on the side of right, but he’s also practical and the seedier side to his interactions with the girl have real power. The villain is Gabriel (Christopher Walken), attempting to end his war with God by releasing Hawthorne’s soul into Heaven and allowing the essence of evil in to finish the favouring of humankind. This could be a concept treated with hopeless solemnity, but instead director Gregory Widen and actor Walken have fun with Gabriel and turn the plot into a pulpy thriller, never taking itself too seriously. Walken in particular has a whale of a time, dealing with the recently dead people he’s reanimated as servants to be toyed with, and using his powers with wild abandon. There’s a brilliant scene where he’s chatting with a bunch of schoolkids as he’s checking each one to see if they contain Hawthorne’s soul. He’s actually great company for the children, but with that element of being able to smite them with one wave of his finger if he so chooses.

If any characters come across as lesser presences, then it’s undeniably the human ones, played by Elias Koteas and Virginia Madsen, and it’s unfair on them because the angels get all the best lines and scenes. Koteas, like Stoltz one of those reliable performers who’s never received the plaudits his work deserves, plays a detective who earlier in his life was training to be a priest, only failing to be confirmed when his visions of the war in heaven overtake his faith. His career turn of joining the police is an inevitable development, turning down the priesthood for a job in the most earthly role possible, one where he gets to experience human horrors on a daily basis. When his character interacts with Simon and later the bad angel that tried to destroy him, he finds himself being sucked into the story and becomes opposed to Gabriel, an uneven battle but one in which he’s determined to play a part. Madsen is yet another ‘what if’ actor, here playing a schoolteacher who by association with the luckless young Mary and her encounter with Simon fights alongside Koteas.

The daft, overblown plot runs more like an action/crime thriller with horror overtones, which favours it as the whole thing plays like a knowing wink with the audience, the sort of gesture Gabriel himself would no doubt make. Widen cut his teeth as a screenwriter, coming up with the screenplay for Highlander, which proved his talent for producing high concept drama that has no idea of a ceiling – the story only really unravels with its sequel, which tries unsuccessfully to make more of the characters than the plot can support. A firefighter, he experienced personally a backdraft, which led to his writing work on Ron Howard’s film of the same name.

It’s a shame that Widen didn’t get to do more work in film – The Prophecy is lots of fun and definitely holds together. He uses an actor like Walken exactly as he should, taking advantage of the actor’s unearthly, pallid look to present Gabriel as a white-faced spectre with a shock of black hair. Walken shifts through the film with real grace. Even scenes where he enters a room and looks around are attractive because, with a glance, he can get across his character’s otherworldly quality, and I love the way he and the other angels perch on the edge of chairs and other objects like birdlike, weightless sprites, emphasising their unreal natures that seem impossible to humans, without the need of special effects to make the point. On the whole, it relies on good actors over storytelling with the heavy use of CGI or practical effects. This betrays The Prophecy’s relatively low budget (despite its strong cast, most of the actors were recruited without great cost, a stroke of fortunate timing), but the quality of the performances transcends most shortcomings.

The Prophecy: ***

P.S. Another shout out for Multitude of Movies, the magazine I’m proud to be part of and that has recently published its third and best issue to date. Running over 100 pages and featuring articles on such diverse topics as Sean Connery’s Bond movies, the non-horror work by Mario Bava and spaghetti western Black Jack, there’s something for everyone and as always I’m impressed with the scope of the features and the quality of the original writing and artwork. A lot of heart goes into this publication – you can purchase it from the website, which also features a growing series of original content reviews. I have contributed to this with a look at Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, a title to which I owe Colin my thanks for introducing me to it.

Gattaca (1997)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 19 May (11.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

There have been some brilliant films that depict a dystopian future, Blade Runner being the obvious example, Brazil another. I’m not a big fan of these sorts of stories though, because I like to hope that tomorrow’s generation will get to live in a world that hasn’t turned to shit – call me naive if you like, but I’d take the optimistic Star Trek vision any time, an Earth that has learned the lessons from its chaotic past and created a co-operative, positive future.

Still, some take the concept of a future shaped by present issues and created something really interesting with it. George Owell’s ideas, developed during the 1940s when Communism appeared to be a rapidly expanding, unstoppable force, beget 1984, imagining a nightmarish present where personal liberties, down to one’s very hopes and dreams, no longer exist. And then there’s Gattaca, made in 1997 when advances in our knowledge about DNA allowed for reproductive engineering and the possibilities of human beings ‘altered’ at their genetic level to remove all imperfections. That’s the very world it posits. In the future, humans fall into two groups – those born naturally, with all the defects that such a process entails, and the ones who have had all potential problems taken away. Such tampering leads to society containing two very distinct types of people. The ‘engineered’ are the supermen, taking the top jobs, given the best opportunities, considered for the space programme to explore Saturn’s moon, Titan. The ‘naturals’ take whatever’s left, constantly reminded that their place is and will always be somewhat less.

Enter Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) – naturally born, his parents told at birth that there’s a 99% possibility of him suffering from a heart condition when he’s older, constantly in the shadow of his younger, artificially idealised brother. Vincent doesn’t have much in terms of prospects, but what he does possess is ambition. Lots of it. Via the black market, he’s put in touch with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), someone with perfect DNA but confined to a wheelchair because he broke his back in an accident, and who is now prepared to ‘swap places’ with Vincent in exchange for money. This means Vincent taking Jerome’s identity, to painstaking levels, carrying sachets of his blood and urine so that he can pass the DNA tests, scrubbing himself clean of all loose skin and hair before he leaves the home so there’s less chance of anyone coming across evidence of his real status. And then he goes to work at Gattaca, a space flight organisation, posing all the while as a ‘Valid’, as Jerome. Quickly rising through the ranks due to sheer will and hard work, he is ultimately chosen to be the navigator on a planned trip to Titan.

Everything appears to be falling into place for Vincent, but the murder of a Gattaca administrator changes everything. An eyelash he accidentally sheds at the murder scene is discovered and identified, which makes him the main suspect, but nominally he’s okay as long as the tests for which he provides samples continue to ‘reveal’ him as Jerome. Even the fact the police (led by Alan Alda and Loren Dean) have a photo matters little, as test results count for far more than visual evidence. All the same, the number of tests increase, Vincent having to resort more and more to tricks in order to stay in the clear, whilst he senses the net closing in on him. He also falls in love with a co-worker, Irene (Uma Thurman), who has a heart condition that prevents her from entering the space programme, not realising that beneath his ‘borrowed’ identity Vincent has similar problems.

Gattaca was the debut directorial effort of Andrew Niccol, raised in New Zealand and better known at the time for his work in commercials. It wasn’t a box office success, but it had critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for its art direction, which went a long way with its relatively small budget in creating a realistic near future world, in particular the austere, clinically clean interiors of Gattaca’s monolithic building. I’ve never been a real admirer of Ethan Hawke, finding him to be one of those actors whose range is too limited to be very interesting (surely the great charm of his work in the Before series is that he’s the bland everyman, and Julie Delpy the fantasy figure), yet he’s fine as the narrator-protagonist, with the cause for which he’s fighting – albeit a selfish one within an imperfect world – just about holding everything together. Far better is Law as the damaged Jerome. At the time he was best known for playing beautiful people, notably in Wilde, and there’s something innately tragic about his character in Gattaca, turning to drink and cigarettes after his accident and showing baleful levels of humour to mask the pain he’s been left in. Despite being disabled, Law provides all the life in his partnership with Hawke. Thurman on the other hand has little to do but look gorgeous. There are fine supporting performances by veterans Alda, Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine. The latter stands out as Vincent’s supervisor on the cleaning rounds who later no longer recognises him when he’s in the guise of Jerome.

At the heart of Gattaca is its central conceit, an idea that at the time felt frighteningly credible and could yet become something like reality as health bills rise and solutions for diseases are sought. As entertainment it certainly works, suggesting an essentially paranoid future in which DNA checks are everyday occurrences, meaning that everyone is a prisoner of their own genes. The concept of a society every bit as discriminatory as anything we have today is fascinating, particularly as the disproportionate treatment echoes all manner of current prejudices and yet is one based on advances in science, which is supposed to be benign.

Gattaca: ***