Paramount // 1997 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // January 5th, 2009
If you could see the things I've seen, you wouldn't try to stop me.
Surprisingly few horror films come out that take place in space; even fewer work. The sci-fi/horror combo genre seems to fit together: the fear of the unknown, the fear of technology, isolation; it all makes sense. Maybe it's the brief (not brief enough) fad of horror sequels, Hellraiser, Leprechaun, Friday the 13th series, along with many others, taking place in space and ruining the setting before it could get started, but why is Alien the only legitimately great horror film set in space? While I can't really answer that question, the example of Event Horizon can show why so many don't work, even with a series of great ideas and the best of intentions.
Space: the near future. A distant beacon from the long-lost spacecraft Event Horizon appears over the radar. This innovative ship had a special "gravity drive" that allowed it to fold the fabric of space and travel light years in seconds. Based on the relativity principle of the same name, the Event Horizon's gravity drive was a half-success: it went out fine, but never returned. Now, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill, In the Mouth of Madness), the ship's designer hires the salvage scowl Lewis and Clark, led by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne, Assault on Precinct 13) to hunt down the craft and bring it home. What they find leads them to believe that the Event Horizon has traveled much farther than the outer reaches of space and into unheard of depths of darkness and evil.
There's so much good in Event Horizon; it is a shame that the whole is not the sum of its parts, but it really isn't too hard to see why. Between studio intervention and over-ambitiousness from director Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat), the film crumbles under its own weight. While Anderson honestly tries to cross science fiction with horror, his mind seems too focused on action (which would bear out in the director's continued work on video game adaptations) to make either totally work. Science fiction has been successfully blended with the other genres separately but, as a trio, they simply do not function.
Opening with a standard shot of a ship floating in orbit (to show off the bass response, no doubt, which is blazing on this Blu-ray presentation) we can see immediately that Anderson and production designer Joseph Bennett have a good thing going with their conceptions. The ships are skeletal and menacing amalgams of modern industry and old movie homage. These designs are fantastic, inside and out, setting an ominous tone that, unfortunately, goes away the second we meet the characters.
We're given the usual suspects aboard the Lewis and Clark: the untrustworthy and condescending scientist who hires them (Neill, channeling his character in Dead Calm); the gruff captain who deeply loves his crew (Fishburne, clearly practicing for his role of Morpheus in The Matrix); the overly serious yet caring medical officer (Kathleen Quinlan, Apollo 13); the rough-and-ready pilot (Sean Pertwee, Blue Juice); the highly skilled, but stupid and silly, repair technician (Richard T. Jones, Kiss the Girls); we've seen these characters countless times. Their instant recognition is sometimes an asset, but they are prevented from exploring any real character depth as a result.
Some campy and ham-fisted dialogue accompanies these stock characters, but the action picks up when the crew reaches the lost ship. Here, we can see the monstrosity that Anderson created for the Event Horizon. Hallways walled with spinning blades; the gravity drive a gyroscope of horror; the ship is brilliant in its conception. When the crew steps inside to see globs of blood suspended in zero gravity, we know we're in for a treat. As they explore the ship, the characters are drawn into their pasts, forced to witness the suffering of those they left behind. An unknown force drives these visions, delivering the witnesses into madness. When the source is revealed, we have an interesting, if not altogether logical monster.
Taking nods from horror and sci-fi history, there are references to a staggering number of older films, with Hellraiser, The Shining, and Tarkovsky's Solaris as the main influences. Without ever ripping those films off, Anderson combines some of the more iconic imagery to add levels of terror and wonder into the film to great effect. The soundtrack, a mixture of award-winning composer Michael Kamen (Don Juan DeMarco) and electronic group Orbital, does an excellent job of building and maintaining tension (and is great on its own, as well). The CG effects are good for the time. There are some obvious problems and, though they are often a little too showy for my tastes, they do well to further the story without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Had Anderson stopped here, Event Horizon would have made its marks and reached the potential so clear in the concept and set design. Unfortunately, the film goes a little too far in most respects. This is not entirely Anderson's fault, however. Audience testing killed the much more horrific and violent original version. Studio demands to extract a lot of the gore forced Anderson's hand. Explosions replaced blood orgies and, all of a sudden, the film feels as much like an action flick as it does horror. Explosions may be startling in their volume, but never will this terrify like a slash across the throat. Fireballs are impersonal; viewers may think the action is cool, but nobody lays in bed unable to sleep because they just can't stop thinking the horror of all those blasts. If, as Anderson says repeatedly, he wanted to make a haunted house in space, this undermines his intentions and we're left at the climax with a film that doesn't know where to take its tension.
Fans of Event Horizon (and I am one, with reservation) will be pleased with this Blu-ray presentation from Paramount. The 1080p hi-def transfer is a moderate improvement over their 2006 two-disc release. The image is crystal clear with much more detail than in the 2006 version. Contrast is exceedingly sharp with the muted color palette looking as brilliant as it possibly can. However, the sound mix, often the unsung hero of horror films, is where this disc really shines. The Dolby TrueHD track is phenomenal. Its deep, rumbling low end does not obscure the dialogue or the overall sound design, one of the most important elements to Anderson's film. The separation is strong and each channel gets its chance to send chills down your spine. The 5.1 surround mix is not nearly as impressive, but still dynamic and quite clear. The extras are exhaustive but they're also the same as appeared on that previous release. I'm not sure that I need to know much more about the film than what Anderson and company discuss in the commentary and featurettes; the one thing that everybody wants to see: Anderson's original blood-soaked intentions are lost to history and lack studio care. What's here is of high quality, but also a number of years old.
Even though I find it ultimately disappointing, Event Horizon has so much good in it that it's hard to criticize too harshly. With some stronger writing, stronger acting, and less heed to the whims of random viewers with dials, it could have been phenomenal. Still, this Blu-ray presentation is the definitive release of the film, and definitely worth the upgrade for fans.
Event Horizon is found not guilty based on its many merits. Anderson is guilty of trying to add too much into a simple formula, but is exonerated for his superior concept. Paramount is absolutely guilty of poorly conceived intervention, turning what could have been a sci-fi/horror classic into a messy cult favorite. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Photos and Art