Along with our Formative Films series which, looks at the films that shaped the genres and tastes of our formative years, we will also be beginning another series. Messy Movies are films that have gained enough of a following to be recognised but can be considered a critical mess.
Event Horizon released in 1997 is an interesting film. Completely stereotypical as far as space films go, it follows the typical story of a ship, lost in space, that has now been found and needs investigated. It has gained a cult following for a few reasons but in our opinion remains a mess of a film.
Starting with an overview of a floating space station, director Paul W.S. Anderson follows the Alien approach and spends little time on the back story, preferring to have the exposition come from the characters on the fly. The ship, Event Horizon has been missing for years and is noted as being the worst disaster in space travel from some small snippets in the opening credits. We get introduced to the crew who show the normal characters found in space films. Event Horizon is often lauded by fans as having a stellar cast. That is true, however there is no point in having a stellar cast if they act poorly. Here we are treated to Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs and Sean Pertwee amongst others. With this cast you would expect performances of enough emotional depth and persuasion to make you care about them before the action starts. Unfortunately, as the viewer I cared little for any of the cast from beginning to end. Only Neill seems to be given the opportunity to put some character into his performance as the mysterious Dr Weir.
Weir it turns out, is the creator of the Event Horizon and its special warp drive. This drive allows it to travel great distances in space. Think Interstellar without any scientific explanation. It makes sense then that he is on the expedition of the rescue ship, the Lewis and Clarke with the other crew members. As they approach the stricken horizon, the story begins to pick up. we hear the distress signal and Jason Isaac’s character picks up some Latin translation asking for help. So far so Alien. In keeping with the homage to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, the rescue team make their way onto the ship and disaster strikes. This time instead of having an alien implanted, the crew member gets sucked into the warp drive before returning in a catatonic state. The shockwave that accompanied his return damages the Lewis and Clarke and the crew have to spend 20 hours on the horizon, while the ship is being prepared. This is where the fun happens.
You see despite the awful acting, common setting and poor pacing Event Horizon has one secret weapon. The central idea or threat of this film is brilliant. When the Horizon made its fateful original jump it opened a portal to Hell. Yes that’s right, the biblical hell. Such an original premise deserves a place in a better film than this. Religious hell is something that is very rarely explored on screen and certainly never in a space or modern setting. If only more time and thought had been placed in surrounding this theme, with a more effective narrative then we could have been holding this movie up as a modern master piece.
When the ship returned from Hell, we are told that it had developed its own sentience or had become possessed by something from the other side. With the crew now stuck on the ship strange happenings occur. Some of the crew seem to be plagued by visions of horrific moments from their past. Fishburne’s Captain Miller sees a burning corpse of a team mate he had to leave behind to die, another crew member sees her son with terrible leg injuries. Naturally they realise something is up and begin to plot their way off the ship. Unfortunately Weir has other ideas. He too is plagued by visions of his wife. As these visions get more intense we learn she committed suicide. While this brings in the religious connotations of suicide, it is never explored and we are left to assume it is just the ship preying on the fears of Weir. He begins to act strangely and we end up in the situation of having someone on the crew working against the rest.
Justin the crew member who was catatonic, wakes up and blames the ‘darkness’ he has seen, he locks himself in the airlock and starts the evacuation procedure. This is the beginning of the other theme the film is known for. Gore and in particular, disturbing imagery. As the chamber begins to open and the air pressure drops Justin’s body begins to turn inside out, his eyes burst and blood begins to spill. Although he is saved by Fishburne, this is only the beginning of the gore. Again though the gore is a missed opportunity, as the crew descend into madness, we see what happened to the other crew in a series of flashbacks. We also learn the Latin was mistranslated and it actually meant ‘save yourselves’. The images we see of the old crew are truly shocking and horrible. They are all naked and seem to be either engaged in an orgy or some form of torture, you really are repulsed and don’t look closely enough to know what’s going on. What you do see is the previous captain, holding his own eyeballs, implying he has torn them out.
After this the film descends into a typical elimination of the crew one by one as Weir now completely under the control of the ship, kills Isaac and suspends him from the ceiling with his insides eviscerated. He detonates a bomb on the Lewis and Clarke killing Pertwee. Kathleen Quinlan’s character is lured to her death by a vision of her son leaving us with Fishburne, Richardson and Richard T Jones’ characters against the possessed Weir. Weir has developed super strength and gouged out his own eyes. After a struggle Weir is ejected through the broken spaceship window seemingly to his doom. Surprisingly the other three survive this hole in the ship and begin to formulate a plan for the final escape. Blow the ship and float in the rescue capsule. Again Alien. As Fishburne is blowing the ship he is again met with visions of his previous crew mate and then Weir again, Weir explains he is taking them back to the other place and shows Fishburne visions of his crew being tortured. Again these are a highlight of the film. So gruesome and memorable, they needed to make more of this. By the time some of the audience realise that the ‘other place’ is actually Hell, the film has ended with Fishburne detonating the ship and himself to save the remaining crew. We are treated to a scar when the survivors are picked up and Richardson sees a vision of Weir and not the rescue. It turns out to be a cheap scare and the film ends.
So unfortunately just when the film reveals its selling point, it ends. This is the tragedy of Event Horizon. The key theme is brilliant and original, unfortunately it has been wrapped in a generic space skin, which is derivative of Alien. Less focus on the space and crew elements and more on the Hell and Latin references would have elevated this above the normal. As it is we are left with a mess that only appeals to lovers of cult films.