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 Hunt for Red October (1990)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 July (10.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I once read a Tom Clancy novel, back when his works were seen as the quintessential fiction for men. It was a struggle. I’d never known that it was possible to talk about the features of some military hardware for several pages, but Clancy did it, loads, and the book, Clear and Present Danger, could not be finished too quickly.

It’s therefore fortunate that the film adaptations, all five Jack Ryan stories, have thrown out much of the ‘technoporn’ and focused instead on the thriller element of these tales. The first, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, may be the best of the bunch, a taut yarn about Cold War politics that drips with tension and handles swathes of plot and characterisation deftly.

The film was directed by John McTiernan, at the time coming off two considerable successes in Predator and Die Hard, the latter considered a high watermark in high concept action cinema. One of the things that made it work so well was that McTiernan took time to develop its story, introducing the characters and giving them motivation, before letting the gun play, stunts and fighting take over, making us care about what was happening and appreciating the stakes involved. It was fine grounding for The Hunt for Red October, a film that depends upon considerable amounts of setting up.

It stars Alec Baldwin as Ryan, a young CIA analyst who, in 1984, unconvers the significance of a newly developed Russian nuclear submarine, that it can move through the oceans more or less silently and therefore has the capacity to ‘sneak up’ on America. Handily, Ryan also knows all about the boat’s captain, Marko Ramius, a longstanding and respected seaman within the Soviet hierarchy who he believes is about to defect rather than attack. He’s right. The plot focus on his efforts to communicate with Ramius before the presence of Red October in a threatening position pre-empts hostilities between the superpowers.

Ramius is played by Sean Connery, by now the Academy Award winning actor who was entering a potentially interesting phase in his career playing older characters. Connery was famous enough to not even attempt a Russian accent, playing the only Scottish Lithuanian in celluloid history whilst the likes of Sam Neill as members of his crew work on their Slavic. Even if he had no time for perfecting dialects, Connery got by on sheer charisma, effortlessly essaying Ramius as a great captain audacious enough to pull off his desperate defection. He even let the Soviet High Command know of his intentions, prompting a sea chase across the North Atlantic in which every available Russian vessel attempts to smoke out the Red October.

Also in the mix is the Dallas, an American submarine commanded by Scott Glenn that realises something is happening and pursues what turns out to Red October, making it the unlikely place for Ryan to join in his efforts to reach out to Ramius. The main threat comes from Stellan Skarsgard’s Russian sub, the Konovalov, which also gives chase and does most of the firing.

The one thing that really lets the film down are the underwater action scenes. Murky shots of submarines floating through the depths appear as gloomy submerged turds, whilst the missiles and countermeasures deployed make use of early CGI, which these days appears to be rather primitive. These scenes are mercifully sparing. More time is spent on the decks, especially Ramius’s, a wonderland of dials and flashing lights that is apparently far more interesting than what these things really look like. At the centre of it all is Connery, spouting the wisdom of his many years in service and outwitting his adversaries. There are a couple of great moments when Red October is being fired upon, the closeness of the torpedoes defined by beeping that gets intermittently more frequent as it approaches, while Ramius uses his experience and wiliness to overcome them.

Both Connery and Baldwin play characters who think laterally, beating those around them in terms of their ingenuity and resourcefulness. For long swathes of red October, Ryan is on the right track about Ramius and nobody believes him, because the way he sees things is completely unprecedented but the idea is that only he and the Russian think so far outside the box and are therefore kindred spirits of a sort. Both are at their best in the cramped surroundings of their submarines, thin corridors and claustrophobia adding to the suspense of their situation. Their story is only marginally better than the fun diplomacy conducted in Washington, Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland’s Russian attache exchanging witty barbs as they attempt to get the better of each other and demonstrating the sort of edgy affection that you’d get from old adversaries. And then there’s James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior, Admiral Greer. Baldwin only starred in one Jack Ryan film but Jones’s services were retained, that deep sonorous voice matched by a wry, larger than life presence that strikes a note of authenticity within the corridors of supreme military personnel.

A Cold War film made in 1990 might sound like it’s missed the boat somewhat, with Glasnost in the air and the relations between America and Russia changed forever. And really, a movie that features few action scenes and runs for longer than two hours sounds a bit of a stretch. But it’s tense, really tense, the stakes high and escalating all along as everyone involved knows and makes clear what’s involved and the potential consequences if they misstep. I like the bits where Red October is damaged, the consequence of a saboteur being on board; at these moments, the essential fragility of being deep beneath the ocean inside a tin can is palpable.

I don’t really know which of the two great submarine-based thrillers of the 1990s I prefer – this, or Crimson Tide, which came out five years down the line. Both feature great supporting casts and two excellent lead actors. I certainly can’t recall Baldwin being better than he is here, a great star making turn hinting at the sort of future greatness that he never quite realised. I also really like Neill’s character, the very loyal second in command who obeys Ramius slavishly, defends him to other crew members when the captain appears to be defying all logic, and getting a great scene when he reveals to Ramius that he’s looking forward to living in Montana. It features some lovely cinematography from future director Jan de Bont, who keeps his camera tilted to film the characters at askew angles and emphasise the tension, also the sense of being closed in. Good stuff.

The Hunt for Red October: ****

Jurassic Park (1993)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 June (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s almost certain that we will be visiting the cinema this weekend to watch Jurassic World, so I thought it might be timely to talk about Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 behemoth of a movie that kicked it all off. Everyone else is discussing it, after all, and I am rather enjoying the number of podcasts I listen to at the moment, often managed by people who would have first seen it when they were children, where the critical faculties have given way to gushing and memories of younger years, the sheer joy of the first time they caught it. I was 21 when Jurassic Park came out and, whilst suitably enchanted, it seems to be regarded as something really special by those who were around the age I was when I first saw something like The Empire Strikes Back and knew, innately, that I’d experienced greatness at exactly the right age to experience it.

For the record, my trip to watch Jurassic Park at the Showcase Cinema in Stockton with a group of friends was one of my first times at a multiplex. Several screens were showing it; at one point I nipped to the loo and returned, sat down, and then carried on watching for several minutes before I realised the film wasn’t at the right point, I was sat next to complete strangers and, eventually, that I’d walked back into the wrong theatre. D’oh!

It’s worth remembering that, before this one, Spielberg was undergoing a bit of a lull. His previous films, Always and Hook, whilst not exactly bad, were widely viewed as below par works from him (I’ve no particular desire to see either again, which says it all for my feelings), so there was something ‘make or break’ about Jurassic Park. 1993 would turn out to be an annus mirablis of sorts for Spielberg. With his pet project, Schindler’s List, also released that year, the two films formed the consummate home run of home runs, instantly conferring on him both the commercial and critical crowns, the latter building to Academy Award glory with Oscars showered on his story of another Oskar. Over the years, my views on both movies has changed somewhat. I can’t watch Schindler’s List without getting the sense that my feelings are being manipulated, when the subject matter is surely powerful enough to stand on its own without the need to deploy such cinematic tricks (the girl in the red coat, good grief). I should save my comments on that particular work for another day, suffice it to say here that, as far as I’m concerned, all the praise seems to be for the devastating subject and the film’s success in bringing it to peoples’ minds, rather than its greatness as a piece of cinema.

As for Jurassic Park, I’ve grown to love it, even now – numerous viewings down the line – soaking up the tension, the special effects, the brilliant design work, the very fine acting, the masterly way it conveys swathes of exposition and scientific background to viewers without collapsing under its own weight. That last point is important. We’re asked to take in a lot of information about (i) how the dinosaurs were artificially created (ii) the reasons for doing so (iii) what dinosaurs actually were (iv) how the park works (v) the man who would steal its secrets, and yet it never really slows down. That’s some damn fine storytelling. We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often, also when to deploy animatronics instead for the more interactive scenes.

Naturally, the film’s story of a theme park housing real-life dinosaurs reaches its point when the security breaks down and its denizens start running amok, looking for food. Jurassic Park is careful to describe the creatures as animals rather than monsters, which makes them feel more real. In the meantime, Jeff Goldblum’s character is a chaos theorist who argues that the park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has shown a critical lack of judgement in reviving beasts that are extinct for a reason, which comes to pass when things start going horribly wrong. All this makes the attack by a Tyrannousaurus Rex the perfect exercise in tension. Announced by the now famous water ripples formed by its approaching footsteps, the king of carnivores sees two young children as lunch and goes to work, systematically destroying their oh so fragile car in its efforts to reach them. The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch, not to mention listen to with the Rex’s roar filling the screen every bit as much as its body.

The Tyrannosaur is the main star from a dinosaur perspective, but its impact is overshadowed by the smaller Velociraptors, those pack hunting hyenas of the reptile age. A little larger than human height (though in reality, they were about the size of chickens) and working together in order to attack from all directions, the raptors make for fantastic pursuers as the human characters try to run and hide. The scene in the park kitchen is much celebrated and rightly so. John Williams’s score is absent – as it is for the Tyrannosaur attack – to allow the natural noises of the dinosaurs and the panicked movements of their prey to take over. Whether you’re hearing a talon tapping on metallic work surfaces or a raptor snorting into the air, it all leads to a gripping chase that’s a masterclass in tension and classy editing. A quick further word on the sound design, which is truly excellent, adding an iconic and quite unique soundtrack of animal life that sounds completely alien because it’s been extinct for 65 million years.

For all their brilliant realisation, the dinosaurs actually occupy little screen time overall, harking back to Spielberg’s earlier Jaws, in which the shark was rarely seen. Investment therefore has to be made in the actors, both for their reactions to what’s happening and their overall characterisation. Spielberg went for a cast devoid of A-list stars, going instead for reliable character actors to tremendous effect. Sam Neill leads as Alan Grant, a serious minded fossil hunter who has no time for children (so naturally, he ends up caring for Hammond’s grandchildren) but an innate knowledge of dinosaurs, so that he can provide the survival tips when faced with carnivores. His partner, Ellie Sattler, is played by Laura Dern. She’s more an expert on extinct plant life, is practical enough to dig with her hands through a pile of droppings to investigate the ailments of a sickly Triceratops, and fends off the attentions of Jeff Goldblum’s suave Ian Malcolm with wry amusement. The latter provides the film with its questions of philosophy and morality, having some great sparring conversations with Hammond, who in Attenborough’s hands is a well meaning, grandfatherly figure (with a Scottish accent that, ahem, comes and goes) rather than the heartless businessman as presented in Michael Crichton’s source novel. Of the supporting players, Samuel L Jackson puts in a pre-Pulp Fiction appearance as a chain smoking site engineer, Bob Peck is on hand as the big game hunter who finds himself ultimately out of his depth, and Wayne Knight plays the treacherous Dennis Nedry who kicks off the story of the park turning to hell before meeting his own ‘sticky’ end.

If Jurassic Park’s effect has dimmed a little over time, then there are those lesser sequels to take into consideration, the second one a further Spielberg helmer that has some good moments but little of the original’s sense of majesty (it’s a monster movie, pure and simple) and the rather tired third instalment, which largely replaces suspense with CGI. But this first episode is really good. There’s a lovely sense of characters being genuinely awestruck by the returning to the world of long dead creatures, helped along by Williams’s music, which gives the whole thing an air of respect and legitimacy.

Jurassic Park: *****