Looking back at Event Horizon

Director Paul W.S. Anderson may have his detractors, but 1997’s Event Horizon was a creepily effective sci-fi horror movie, Ryan argues...

Even the biggest fans of UK director Paul W.S. Anderson will surely admit that he’s made some decidedly iffy films over the years, culminating in his latest computer effects outing, the headache-triggering Resident Evil: Afterlife. But before Afterlife and the even worse Aliens Vs Predator, way back in 1997, he directed Event Horizon, which is arguably his best movie to date.

Featuring a strong ensemble cast, including Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill and Joely Richardson, it was a post-Alien sci-fi horror about a group of space travellers who, upon receiving a distress signal from the stricken ship Event Horizon, head off towards Neptune to investigate. Upon arriving, they find the vessel, once used to test an experimental gravity drive, apparently empty.

Gradually, however, weird things begin to happen among the shadowy corridors of the ship. Rescue team member Justin (Jack Noseworthy) is sucked into the mysterious, inky vortex of the Event Horizon’s gravity drive, while elsewhere disturbing footage is found that hints at the fate of the ship’s previous inhabitants, suggesting that they had killed each other in some kind of demonic mania.

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It soon transpires that the Event Horizon’s drive is the source of a form of inter-dimensional evil, and one by one the rescue team are driven to the brink of insanity by visions of their individual worst fears.

Doctor Weir (Sam Neill), the scientist who designed the ship, is the worst afflicted. And just as Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and the rest of the team prepare to destroy the Event Horizon and make their escape, a horribly disfigured Weir steps into prevent them, and when Weir says “you can’t leave,” you have to believe him.

It could be argued, of course, that Event Horizon is little more than an amalgam of numerous other sci-fi and horror films, a grim stew of Alien, Solaris, Forbidden Planet, The Shining and even Roger Corman’s trashy effort Galaxy Of Terror.

What makes Event Horizon more than just a derivative rip-off, however, is the quality of its design and production. The ship is a baroque, cavernous haunted house of echoing walkways and long shadows, while the gravity drive is a brilliantly conceived piece of mechanical evil.

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Then there’s the quality of cast, which is a definite cut above the usual slasher-in-space fare such as Hellraiser IV: Bloodline and Jason X. Laurence Fishburne lends the film a weighty, dependable presence, while Sam Neill is brilliant value as the scientist whose demeanour steadily changes from terrified to out-and-out evil.

You could argue, I suppose, that the script is a little ropey in places, even after its uncredited revision by Andrew Kevin Walker, and that its resemblance to other films makes it a little predictable in places. The film’s insistence that there are some areas of science where man shouldn’t venture is also a glaringly archaic sentiment that harks back to the days of Frankenstein.

Nevertheless, Event Horizon remains one of the most well made and, above all, scary horror pictures of the 90s, and certainly one of the most gory mainstream films of the period.

Oddly, however, many critics weren’t terribly kind to Event Horizon, and the movie only managed to amass a twenty-one percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While admitting that the film’s opening was “classy” in his 2000 review, eminent critic Roger Ebert later argued that “The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding.”

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Ebert probably has a point here. Like too many suspense and horror films, its ultimate pay-off isn’t as gripping as its build up, but I’d nevertheless argue that, when compared to many other genre pictures, it’s both well made and often surprisingly effective in its shocks.

What’s also notable about Event Horizon is just how influential it has been, in its own minor way, at least.

Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi picture Sunshine began as a fairly measured, even intelligent space exploration story, before descending into areas of schlock horror that seemed markedly similar to Anderson’s movie ten years before it.

Then there’s Visceral’s 2008 videogame Dead Space, whose exercise in intergalactic horror was clearly influenced by the visual style and setting of Event Horizon, as well as other genre touchstones like Aliens and The Thing.

So, while Anderson’s more recent movies have shown little inspiration, often content to cagily restage action scenes from Die Hard or Matrix movies in an endless loop, Event Horizon saw Anderson in a rare moment of creative pomp.

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Resident Evil: Afterlife may induce little more than a headache, but Event Horizon was more than capable of delivering a frisson of fear.