Infinite Space, Infinite Terror: A 15th Anniversary Look Back at Event Horizon
by Kit Rathenar
Beware of moderate spoilers.
It says everything about the current state of filmmaking that when I set out to write an article celebrating the fifteenth birthday of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, the first thing I did – even before sitting down to rewatch the film itself – was to peer suspiciously around the internet to find out whether anyone was threatening a remake of it. Much to my relief, the answer seems to be “no”. For the moment at least, this dark little jewel of a movie is apparently safe from the Frankenstein’s laboratory that Hollywood has turned into in recent years.
Long may it so remain, because Event Horizon is one of those rare films that’s held its head up since the day it was released and to this day, I genuinely believe nothing has been added to cinema’s technical or narrative repertoires that could have improved it. Event Horizon smoothly crosses the atmosphere of a haunted-house plot with the uniquely existential nightmarishness of a deep-space setting, and then spices the result with the almost sexual charge of a Hellraiser-style fascination with flesh, blood and the outer limits of experience. It’s a volatile mix, and one that in the wrong hands could easily have backfired, but it all fits together with an almost poetic elegance. I’ve seen this film a lot of times, to the point where I can lipsync the dialogue for most of it, and yet every time I see it I notice something else about it that I love.
This time the thing that made me sigh with happiness, as the credits gave way to the opening shot of the Event Horizon hanging in the darkness above Neptune, was the realisation of just how good it felt to be watching a movie set in space that was made before the age of modern CGI. Computer-generated spaceships are one of my least favourite things ever, but I’ve become resigned to them through necessity. To be reminded of the detail, the solidity – the simple plausibility of design that comes from having to make a physical model of a ship before you can film it – gladdens my heart. The ships of Event Horizon are beautiful in their ugliness, put together in ways that suggest pragmatic considerations long ago won out over aesthetic ones in this universe. While the Event Horizon herself has a certain elegance, the smaller search-and-rescue ship Lewis and Clark is a real rivet-bucket of a vessel with no concessions to artistry whatsoever. They’re beautiful on the inside, too; lacking the glossy, streamlined, well-lit internal spaces that so many fictional vessels of the future possess, they’re put together out of small rooms, gantries, ladders, companionways and crawlspaces that at least hint at a plausible descent from our own universe’s twentieth-century spacecraft. The only real contravention of this rule is the huge empty shaft that links the Event Horizon’s forward decks to her engineering core at the stern, and this can easily be justified in terms of a desire to keep the untested black-hole-drive technology at a comfortable arm’s length from the crew.
This kind of functional beauty is a feature of the visual direction throughout, indeed, with the camerawork consistently adopting a viewer-friendly style that shows you everything you want to see (and a few things you’d probably rather not) with style and economy, making time for aesthetic considerations without ever going “hey, look at this trick shot, aren’t we clever?” I love cinematography that can make me forget I’m watching a film and let me feel instead like I’m right there with the characters, and Event Horizon achieves this pretty much perfectly. But of course, even if you are in there with the cast, you still need to care about them for a film to work, and for me, this is where Event Horizon has always outshone so many lesser movies by whole orders of magnitude. It would have been easy to make a film purely about a bunch of characters getting eaten in deep space by a possessed starship, relying on sheer splatter factor to get the impact. Plenty of directors would have done just that and gone home happy.
However, once you start looking more closely, that isn’t what Event Horizon is – certainly it’s not all it is. Despite being unashamedly a horror movie first and foremost, it’s also a film about people, and the ties that bind them to each other; and about how you can use those ties to drag them straight to hell. Every single character in this film fits somehow into its weblike group dynamic, including the dead ones and even the ships themselves. Start, if you will, with the monstrous triangle between Dr Weir, his dead wife Claire, and the Event Horizon – it becomes horribly obvious as the film goes on that Claire’s suicide may have been a direct consequence of Weir’s neglect of her for his ironclad mistress, and there’s a triumphant rival’s malice in the way the Event Horizon puppeteers Claire’s memory to manipulate Weir into staying with it forever. The Event Horizon is assuredly alive and sentient, and it wants more than simply to kill; it wants to claim and keep its victims, and the way it achieves this is not by acting through simple fear or menace. Instead, it baits its traps with the things that will wrench most powerfully on its targets’ heartstrings. Weir sees his dead wife; Peters her son; Miller the crewmate he unwillingly left to die years before. Smith loses his life trying to save the Lewis and Clark – which he clearly loves as much as Weir does the Event Horizon, once again demonstrating that the cursed ship isn’t prepared to accept competition for its intended crew’s loyalties no matter what form that competition comes in. And this is what really makes me love this movie, and come back to it time and time again. Not the horror, but the humanity of it. It’s easy to invest in the characters because they’re invested so deeply in each other, and that takes a better script and better directing than it ever will to just throw a scare into the audience.
It also takes better acting, which is where Event Horizon plays an unexpected trump card by fielding an absolutely stellar cast. From Sam Neill chewing the scenery as the driven Dr Weir to Laurence Fishburne’s softly-spoken, courageous yet deeply human Captain Miller, and with both Sean Pertwee and Jason Isaacs (before he blotted his copybook by donning that unfortunate blond wig for Harry Potter) among the supporting performers, this film is loaded with talent and puts all of it to excellent use. And speaking of actors, another point that isn’t mentioned enough but should definitely be credited to Event Horizon’s reputation is that for its age it has some impressively forward-looking character demographics. The standard crew of the Lewis and Clark contains, out of seven, two women and two black men; of these, one of the final survivors is black, one is female, and the other black character dies right near the end of the film rather than being the traditional first casualty. It even resists the temptation to objectify the female cast: we see nearly as much male as female nudity, all of it is story-relevant one way or another, and nobody’s breasts end up getting more screentime than their face. It’s all very refreshing when you consider that even now there are plenty of blockbusters being made which can’t manage to do half as well.
And all that aside, of course, you can’t talk about Event Horizon without acknowledging that first and foremost, it succeeds as what it’s billed as: a horror movie. Mainly, I think, because it’s ambitious enough to draw from a wide repertoire of tested horror techniques without relying too much on any one of them, so no matter who you are, there’s probably something in here that will resonate with one of your own private nightmares. There’s anticipation horror, jump scares, body horror, emotionally and intellectually disturbing moments, and more, all of it building up from a rock-solid foundation of pure cosmic/existential terror that you’d have to be utterly devoid of imagination not to get something out of. Where do you go if you punch a hole through reality itself – what could be a more evocative question than that? The iconic image of the Event Horizon’s huge gravity-drive “gate” with its spinning rings gives me the shivers to this day, and I literally can’t watch this film without spending the rest of the night shuddering as odd snatches of it come back to haunt me. Whether it’s the crawling terror of that green-lit access corridor in the engineering bay (which Weir, a declared claustrophobe, notably plunges into without hesitation when it’s for the sake of his ship – another of those little character touches that this film is littered with) or the memory of “liberate… me…” echoing in my ears, there’s always something from this movie that manages to ride on my shoulder and then jump back into full recollection at the worst possible moment. I watch a lot of horror films, but most of them don’t leave a lasting scar on me. Event Horizon is one of the very few that not only does, but somehow still makes me want to come back for more.
I’ll close this editorial with a titbit of news that should make any Event Horizon fan’s heart leap as much as it did mine. At ComicCon 2012, Paul W.S. Anderson was being interviewed by Steve Weintraub of collider.com (watch it here) when he dropped a bombshell: the original, long believed lost first version of Event Horizon (it went through multiple rounds of cuts at Paramount’s instruction) has been found, courtesy of producer Lloyd Levin who turned it up on an old VHS cassette! Anderson himself hadn’t seen the tape at the time of the interview, but said he was going back home to watch it as soon as he was done with Resident Evil 5. Might we yet be treated to a director’s cut of this extraordinary film? I don’t know for sure – Anderson hasn’t shown much tendency to do director’s cuts in his career – but I’m crossing everything I’ve got. Care to join me?