A slight excess of goofiness taints the majestic science-fiction horror atmosphere established in ‘Event Horizon’

January 25, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 25, 2016

Event Horizon is my favorite bad movie of all time. I love this 1997 feature because it comes oh so close to bona fide greatness.

The story is set in the year 2047, 32 years after humanity has established its first permanent base on the moon and a quarter-century after commercial mining has begun on Mars. After a brief prologue in which an obviously lonely scientist, William “Billy” Weir, wakes from a nightmare and tells a photograph of what turns out to be his dead wife that he misses her dearly, the action shifts to the U.S. Aerospace Command vessel Lewis and Clark minutes before it fires its main engines for a 72-day journey to the remote reaches of the solar system.

Only after the ship arrives and its crew emerges from stasis chambers — and after Weir, who’s tagging along for the ride, suffers another nightmare — do Capt. Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and his comrades learn why they have been yanked from a well-deserved shore leave and dispatched to the rarely visited fringes of known space. It turns out that a ship thought destroyed in 2040 has been found in a decaying orbit around the planet Neptune, where it is broadcasting a short but cryptic radio signal.

The Event Horizon was said to be a research vessel that was lost after its reactor went critical. But Weir (Sam Neill) informs his captive (and highly skeptical) audience that this information was fictitious — a cover story. In actuality, the ship disappeared without a trace after activating its gravity drive, a novel device built by Weir that may permit interstellar travel by folding the space-time continuum.

Soon enough, the Lewis and Clark locates Event Horizon, which is vast and lifeless but apparently undamaged. As is typical in the two-ships-meet-in-the-night movie subgenre, be it astronautical (The Black Hole) or plain-old-nautical (Deep RisingVirusGhost Ship), the crew is forced to take refuge aboard the larger vessel after theirs sustains serious damage. There, Miller, Weir and company are plagued by a series of increasingly spooky incidents that lead them to the inescapable conclusion that Event Horizon has traveled to hell and come back possessed…

Event Horizon was written by Philip Eisner, whose only other notable credits are a 2002 TV-movie sequel to Firestarter and the 2008 sci-fi actioner Mutant Chronicles. It was directed Paul W.S. Anderson, who’s probably best known for helming the video game adaptations Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, of which he has directed three movies, with a fourth due next year. His other credits include the undistinguished science-fiction action vehicles SoldierAlien vs. Predator and the remake of Death Race along with the poorly received period action films The Three Musketeers (2011) and Pompeii (2014).

Besides Event Horizon, I’ve seen Alien vs. Predator, which I thought was intriguing but ultimately indifferent; Mortal Kombat, which I found entertaining (about all one can expect from a video-game adaptation); and parts of Soldier, which seems decent enough. From what I’ve watched, Anderson is broadly competent at handling action and effects and establishing atmosphere, but nothing he does ever turns out truly great. There’s something unavoidably campy about all of his work.

That mainly comes out in Event Horizon through the character of Cooper, a sassy black rescue technician played by Richard T. Jones whose chatter is one step removed from cartoon-level silliness — at times, Jones seems to be in a completely different movie from everyone else. But it also emerges in some of the movie’s other quips as well as in the over-the-top gore effects and hammy acting by the performer whose character (I won’t say which) fully crosses over into madness. The music played over the opening and closing credits also detracts from the rest of the production, and there are a few dodgy computer-generated effects, mainly involving liquids in microgravity, that detract from the production.

And what a production it is. The sets and props in Event Horizon are absolutely beautiful. The title ship resembles a creepy abandoned technological cathedral, while Lewis and Clark has the lived-in, workmanlike atmosphere of the Nostromo from Alien. Neill comes off a bit silly at times, but Fishburne radiates intensity as the rescue ship commander. The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Jason Isaacs as D.J., the trauma surgeon; Joely Richardson as Starck, Miller’s executive officer; and Kathleen Quinlan as Peters the medical technician, a single mom with a young disabled son. Holley Chant is suitably spooky as Claire, Weir’s eyeless wife. (The troupe is rounded out by Sean Pertwee as Smith, the Lewis and Clark’s helmsman, and Barclay Wright as Denny, Peters’s son.)

Fishburne is particularly compelling in a late scene with Isaacs in which Miller discusses the time he consigned a young crewman to a fiery death aboard a previous command. “Have you ever seen fire in zero gravity?” the captain asks. “It’s beautiful. It’s like liquid, it slides all over everything. Comes up in waves. And they just kept hitting him, wave after wave.” Fishburne seems genuinely haunted in this moment, as if he’s recalling an actual traumatizing event from his past.

The movie confounded my expectations a few times; if you try to guess which characters will and won’t survive, you’re likely to get it wrong. And the movie closes with a tense final scene that kind of left me guessing as to how happy an ever-after the survivors will get to enjoy…

Event Horizon gets enough right that I love it, but its missteps are numerous and egregious enough to prevent it from being a truly terrific sci-fi horror feature. Five out of five collapsed stars — watch it now!

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