Sci-Fi Film Review: Event Horizon (1997)

It’s almost Halloween, everyone, and I’m sure you can guess what that means: it’s time to take a look at the spookiest space film out there, Event Horizon. Like Ad Astra, it is about an expedition to a doomed ship around Neptune; unlike Ad Astra, it’s actually good. Some spoilers (but no gore) ahead:

What a beautiful poster! The Event Horizon lurks by Neptune, dwarfing the tiny ship approaching it, and above it all we see the faces of the two powerhouse stars of this film, Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill. This image, like the others in this review, is provided here under fair use, for purposes of criticism and commentary.

The year is 2047. Humanity has colonized the solar system out to Mars, but the stars, ever so distant, remain beyond our reach. Only the research vessel Event Horizon made an attempt to break the light-speed barrier, and it vanished with all hands. The mission was an expensive, top-secret failure, and nothing has been heard from it since… until now.

A distress signal is broadcasting from low Neptune orbit, with the Event Horizon‘s signature. It went somewhere for seven years, and now, it has come back.

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It’s waiting…

Enter our heroes: the crew of the salvage vessel Lewis and Clark, captained by the indefatigable Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne). With them is Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), the designer of the Event Horizon. Their mission is to rendezvous, rescue any survivors, and determine what went wrong with its experimental gravity drive.

They dock with the ship in a decaying orbit around Neptune, and it’s immediately obvious that something’s very, very wrong with the Event Horizon. There are no lifesigns save for a faint signature scattered throughout the ship. The crew is gone, save for one mutilated corpse and a gruesome mass of flesh and bones fused to a bulkhead. Stranger still, several of the salvage team experience hallucinations—the medic, Peters, sees her son being eaten by maggots, Miller sees the burning ghost of a crewman he once failed to save, and Dr. Weir is tormented by visions of his dead wife with her eyes clawed out. All the while, the core of the gravity drive spins menacingly in the back of the ship, imbued with its own sinister intelligence…

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Gazing into the unknown.

The situation swiftly goes from ominous to deadly, as a mysterious power surge damages the Lewis and Clark and forces the salvage team to take refuge aboard the Event Horizon. While his engineers make repairs, Captain Miller tries to figure out what happened to the first crew, and a dark truth becomes clear: as soon as the gravity drive activated, seven years ago, the crew killed each other in a frenzy of senseless violence. They crossed beyond the known universe, and whatever they found on the other side drove them mad.

And the Event Horizon brought something back with it.

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Dr. Weir sits at the helm of his beloved starship… while said starship slowly drives him insane.

This is a cosmic horror story, one of the best put to film. Sure, many of scares comprise gore and gross-out moments—the number of eyes that get gouged in this film is truly considerable—but the deeper horror is the notion that, if we ever probe too far, we will discover that the universe we thought we knew is but a thin veneer over something imponderably old, vast, and evil. As Dr. Weir puts it, after plucking out his own eyes: “I created the Event Horizon to reach the stars, but she’s gone much, much farther than that…” All throughout the movie are glimmers of a terrible truth, a reality so horrifying that it drove the original crew to rip each other to shreds. We, the audience, never get to see fully behind the veil, but that’s the essence of good cosmic horror—mystery, and fear of the unknown.

Helping amp up the scares in this film is a terrific atmosphere, sustained by moody lighting and spot-on set design. Just look at this:

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The gravity drive is even better—it’s like some hellish steampunk contraption, covered in spikes, surrounded by more spikes jutting from the walls. The Event Horizon‘s over-the-top techno-Gothic design may not make much sense from a practical perspective (I haven’t even mentioned the meatgrinder corridor), but it sure looks awesome

The gore’s also pretty horrifying. Scared the crap out of me when I first watched this movie, back in high school. Notoriously, the original version of Event Horizon was so unbelievably gruesome that test audiences were walking out of it, and Paul W.S. Anderson had to trim it down to just 90 minutes. There’s no chance of a director’s cut, unfortunately, because when the removed footage later turned up—in a Transylvanian salt mine of all places—it had degraded beyond any hope of salvaging.

Event Horizon was not a success, initially. Anderson had to edit it in just four weeks rather than the usual ten, due to Paramount releasing Titanic a few months later, and when the film did come out, it was to resounding critical and commercial failure.  To date it has a 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it’s also become a cult classic, and maintains a loyal group of fans (myself included).

There are things to dislike about the movie. For example, its CGI is rudimentary, at best. I’d like to point out that Starship Troopers came out the same year, and holds up much better in terms of VFX.

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Is there a possible Starship Troopers review coming up? No way. What would give you that impression?

Event Horizon is also not terribly original—it borrows from AlienSolaris, and The Shining, just to name a few, though I maintain that it still finds its own unique flavor. More problems: one comic relief character undermines the film’s seriousness. The characterization, especially Weir’s descent into madness, is rushed. While the overall soundtrack is great, the opening and end credits have some sort of stupid techno music that completely kills the mood. And, of course, there’s the scientific accuracy, which is great in one area and awful in most others.

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At this point, this deep in Neptune’s atmosphere, the Event Horizon is less a spaceship and more a plane.

The Event Horizon and the Lewis and Clark are equipped with magical artificial gravity and no visible fuel tanks, which are both pretty standard fare for soft sci-fi. Furthermore, the Event Horizon spends most of the movie well within Neptune’s atmosphere, at an altitude where it could not possibly maintain any sort of orbit, decaying or otherwise. If you look out the window and see clouds around you, you’re not in space anymore.

However: this movie absolutely aces the effects of decompression on a human being. One character, possessed by the ship, steps into an airlock and opens the hatch, and instead of exploding—like the space baboons in Ad Astra—something much nastier happens to him. His veins bulge, and his eyes start to spray blood, and he screams in agony until there’s no more air with which to scream. It’s all pretty unsettling to watch, not to mention surprisingly accurate for a Hollywood space movie.

My overall thoughts? Don’t let its 27% on Rotten Tomatoes fool you; Event Horizon is good horror, good sci-fi, and good fun. Definitely worth your time!

Rating: 7/10 for the actual execution, and 10/10 for how much I love it anyway.

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