While it's often hard to avoid "the darkness" inside himself, Judge Bill Gibron faced his personal demons and demands that this sci-fi scare fest be given a second chance—especially in the near-definitive DVD presentation offered here.
Our review of Event Horizon (Blu-Ray), published January 5th, 2009, is also available.
Infinite space…infinite terror!
We've all heard the stories about movies undermined by studio interference. We've also heard tell of novice directors who lucked into box-office hits, said success giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want to follow up. The collision of these two often-incompatible situations defines the 1997 sci-fi horror film Event Horizon. Paramount Pictures, looking for a way to cash in on Paul W. S. Anderson's newfound fame as a maker of hit films (in this case, the big-screen version of the video game Mortal Kombat), coaxed the amateur auteur with a more-or-less blank checkbook, both financially and artistically. Leaping at the chance, Anderson agreed. After all, their restrictions seemed simple enough—make a certain street date and don't go over budget. Anderson looked over dozens of scripts before deciding on Phillip Eisner's spooky spaceship saga. Revamping the premise (gone were aliens using the vessel as a psychological test lab, welcome visions of Hell!) and retrofitting England's Pinewood Studios with impressive, otherworldly sets, Anderson sought to make a bloody, bravado opus. Yet when all was said and done, most considered the film a failure. Thanks to a new Special Edition DVD, we learn the truth about Event Horizon's journey from promising blockbuster to underperforming cult classic—and there is blame to be found in many meaningful places.
Facts of the Case
It is 2047. After seven years missing in action, the starship Event Horizon has been located in the vast outer banks of our solar system. Her disappearance was the worst space disaster in the history of man's exploration of the stars and officials want to know what happened. A rescue mission lead by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix) and the crew of the Coast Guard vessel Lewis and Clark are off to salvage what is left and hunt for survivors. They are joined by Horizon designer/inventor Dr. Bill Weir (Sam Neill, The Piano), who hopes to discover what became of his experimental craft and its innovative gravity drive. The last communication from the ship was scrambled—and very disturbing.
Though it appears intact upon arrival, something is not quite right with the Event Horizon. Everyone, from the ship's doctor (Jason Isaacs, The Patriot) to various members of the crew (Joely Richardson, nip/tuck, Kathleen Quinlan, The Doors, Jack Noseworthy, Breakdown), thinks something evil lurks inside the ship. As visions of dark and disquieting horrors begin filling their minds, they become convinced of a presence beyond their own. Sure enough, the fate of the original crew and the reality about where Event Horizon has been provides shocking insight into the nasty nature of the Universe—both the visible and the unseen.
There are a couple of caveats that need to be addressed before going onward with this review. For many, Paul W. S. Anderson (the initials standing for "William Scott") represents a single step up from the dopey Dr. Uwe Boll in the world of speculative cinema. His oeuvre, a complex crapshoot loaded with good if goofy cheese (Mortal Kombat) and outright outrages (the stupefying Soldier with Kurt Russell), remains a kind of mainstream enigma. As much as fans profess to hate his efforts in translating the objects of their obsession into semi-solid films (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator), he still gets hired to helm high-concept, big-budget fare. Currently, his name is attached to another video game classic (Castlevania) and a revamp of the randy Roger Corman opus from 1975, Death Race 2000 (now christened 3000), so studios obviously like what they see when they deal with the benevolent Brit. This was not the case with Event Horizon, however. Hoping to strike while the flavor-of-the-month iron was hot, Paramount hobbled Anderson every step of the way, from its promises of free spending to its massive mandates come audience-testing time. What could have been a bloody banquet of baroque flavored sci-fi was, instead, drained of its daring by a studio suspect that such a film would find an audience—any audience. Whether they were right or not, the eventual Event was not the movie Anderson had in mind.
This is not an excuse, though. Anderson's ambitions were fairly large. If you took Stanley Kubrick's 2001, inserted a little of Ridley Scott's Alien, and bound it all in another homage helping of Stan the Man—like The Shining—you'd begin to get the idea of Event Horizon's cinematic objectives. Now toss in a little splatter rampage, an outright rip-off of Clive Barker and his celebrated Cenobites, and enough religious iconography to make the Pope weep, and you've got the basis for an altogether odd experiment in techno-theological terror. Anderson was hoping to push the boundaries of motion picture macabre, making a self-described "haunted house in space" film while delving into a plane more ethereal than extraterrestrial. Using a cast of considerable talent (a pre-Matrix Fishburne, a post-Jurassic Park Neill) and some stupendous production design, Anderson set out to make a gory, Gothic masterpiece. Sadly, it didn't turn out that way. For many, Event Horizon is a hopelessly muddled mess of special effects, arch acting, and indecipherable fright factors. Questions abound about the ship's ability to travel through space, how it ended up in its inferno inspired state, and just what Neill's Weir character is doing with all those obscure runes carved in his flesh. With fleeting glimpses of gruesomeness and an overriding ability to suggest, not shock, it's seen as subpar sci-fi dripping with smug scares.
Frankly, Event Horizon is guilty of all its flaws. It is also a movie that surpasses them time and time again to be an effective, if evasive, chiller. First and foremost, it is an amazing film to look at, the outer-space conceptualizations creating a wonderfully weird world of the sterile and the sacrilegious. The Lewis and Clark rescue ship hints at a Nostromo knock-off, while the title vessel is a volatile void filled with maze-like menace and just the slightest suggestion of the supernatural. Anderson was wise to reject the original script's "alien experiments" premise. Such a last-act acknowledgement would have played as pitiful, not powerful. But the whole "journey to Hell" is also slightly underbaked in the final version. Since studio suits always shy away from outright suggestions of religious pretense, it must have been hard for Anderson to advocate a literal interpretation of his underworldly ideal. But since the movie only really hints at the Devil and his diabolical designs, we never get a clear image of the Event Horizon's travails. Either it went to Hades and returned with a load-pan full of evil and hate, or Satan is using the ship's gravity drive as a doorway into reality (a la Fulci's The Beyond, another obvious influence). Somewhere between Zeus and Zero-G lies the answer and Event Horizon is not about to reveal its resolution. This makes for a less-than-forthcoming frightfest.
What does work are the psychological stopovers inside people's own private misery. Event Horizon derives most of its fear from individuals dealing with the guilt of losing a loved one. Sam Neill is mourning his wife, Kathleen Quinlan is missing her crippled son, and Laurence Fishburne is finding it hard to shake the memory of a soldier he had to sacrifice. Each internal terror is depicted in a ghoulish, gratuitous manner, while at other times, these people are just poised to face their fears. Certainly, some of the ship's "responses" to people make for nothing other than splatter set pieces. A vivisected body makes for a truly terrifying vision, as does a cracked and frozen corpse. We are grateful for the gore, however, since it gives the movie a primeval vibe that is usually missing from most haunted house tales. Anderson accentuates these sequences with masterful editing, exposing just enough of the carnage to have it crawl under our skins. Some argue that an unrated Event Horizon would be far more fun, with its maggots-feasting-on-open-sores sensibilities good and intact. Frankly such an approach has a champion in Anderson, who laments the loss of crucial moments of grue. Yet producer Jeremy Bolt argues against such outlandishness. He reckons it ruins the mood, instantly taking people out of the plot. Both may be right, but the balance between the two is also part of Event Horizon's charms. We squirm at what these scenes suggest, but never have to worry about bringing up our lunch over how they are realized. Besides, the movie makes its point with a more visual than visceral approach.
As much as H.R. Giger guided Alien, Anderson and his production designer Joseph Bennett created a signature world with this film. The gravity drive is like a gyroscopic torture device, its proscenium like portal a collection of sharp edges and spikes. The gantry way into the core has a hypnotically harrowing circular design, an outer shell of jagged metal spinning like a mincer bent on menace. The connecting corridor is an infinite space filled with airiness and apprehension. Then there is the blood-covered cockpit, the scene of a terrifying video where the original crew members kill each other while engaging in disgustingly real, violent sex acts. Just the look of Event Horizon has the hairs standing up on the back of our necks. That Anderson often underutilizes his setting is to be expected. Few directors understand that backdrop is as important as performance in setting tone. A set may look great the minute you walk onto it to film, but we, the audience, need to feel that awe as well. Sometimes, we do. Other times, the narrative keeps the more artistic elements in the background. Along with some superb acting (Fishburne and friends do NOT disappoint) and a directing approach that combines music video and standard mise-en-scene, Event Horizon has all the makings of a sci-fi sensation. Still, something consistently undermines the terror here—and its name is the sad, stupid Hollywood studio system.
By demanding cuts in length and logistics (blood, character development, and action scenes), Paramount really messed with this movie's potential. Anderson has said that his first cut was over two hours. While he has acknowledged that this was, perhaps, too long, he doesn't think it needed the massive trimming it got. However, once a test screening was had (the movie was not finished, effects were absent, and some sequences were put together piecemeal, without proper editing) and the ratings recorded, Paramount panicked. They saw their investment sinking in a less-than-enthusiastic set of scores from audiences. Immediately, they demanded cuts. Thirty minutes were earmarked for removal and Anderson was stuck discarding personality-defining moments and effects sequences to meet the requirements. If you've often watched this film and said to yourself, "Something's missing here," you're probably right. Event Horizon had its sights set on being epic, an adventure into the extreme, similar to the films it so freely borrowed from, but Paramount wouldn't allow it. The result truly plays like someone's hampered vision, a movie that never lets its many visual cues sink in and subvert the viewer. If it wasn't for the film's unique look and controlled mood of morbidity, it would have been a decided disaster, but thanks to Anderson and his willingness to work within the confines he was placed in, Event Horizon succeeds. It's not a classic by any means, but it is a truly disturbing entry into the extraterrestrial terror picture.
Long rumored to be in the offing and often speculated on by fans of the film, the Special Edition of Event Horizon does not disappoint. With bonus features spread out over two discs and totaling nearly three-and-a-half hours, we get one of the most in-depth looks at the making of a movie since the spectacular The Fly release in October 2005. From a purely technical standpoint, the film looks fantastic. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is sharp and crystal clear. The colors are fabulous and details abound. There are no visible noise or pixilation issues and the entire transfer feels pristine and nearly new. As for the sound side of things, Anderson believes in the ability of sonics to scare and disturb (like another favorite reference, Robert Wise's The Haunting). The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is therefore dynamic, filled with unsettling noises and the low, grinding groan of evil. The channels do get a workout during a few of the action scenes and we experience a lot of directional dynamics during the scares. While the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 is solid, the multi-speaker showcase is the way to go.
As for added content, this once-stingy studio is to be praised for the amount of work that went into this DVD presentation. The sole feature on Disc One, besides the film itself, is a 2004 commentary with Anderson and producer Bolt. Part trip down recent memory lane, part discussion of the issues they faced once Paramount tested the film, this alternative narrative is excellent. Both men are very soft-spoken and occasionally lapse into silence, but overall, they provide a probing, powerful window into why this movie is not more highly regarded. The real insight, however, comes on Disc Two. Here, Paramount provides us with an exhaustive documentary, nearly two hours long, on the making of the movie and it literally covers everything. While the lack of actor participation other than that of Jason Isaacs is disappointing, this is still an amazing blow-by-blow account of how Event Horizon came to be—as well as how it came to be undone. We learn about the original ending, the unending efforts to satisfy the suits, the time when the production set Pinewood Studios on fire, and what a freewheeling, humorous hippy Sam Neill is when he's not playing repressed—or, as in this case, possessed—characters. You get plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, a few deleted scenes (including an extended look at the "journey into Hell" finale), and a nice overview of the production art.
Anderson is everywhere in this material. He means to sell Event Horizon as a forgotten gem and he succeeds in convincing us that, at least, it was a missed opportunity for all involved. The three outtakes are explained, as is an entire introductory action scene that was removed from the script. Seeing him now, as well as back several years ago, we understand how mature and seasoned he has become. In a way, you begin to wonder what Event Horizon would look like had he been offered it now, after the relative success of Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator. Anderson often comes across as the naïve young gun seduced by the studio system, only to have it piss all over his pronouncements once the final results were viewed. He is forthcoming and honest during the bonus features, which in turn make his occasionally mediocre movies that much more tolerable. Since they're also a rehabilitation for a man and his movie, the added content offered as part of the Event Horizon: Special 2-Disc Collector's Edition makes a strong case for the DVD medium. Without all this insight, we'd merely view the film as a fun failure. With it, a lamentable new luster arrives.
On one of his recent commentaries for the film Hostel, Eli Roth argues for the death of the audience testing system—at least, as it is practiced today. Instead of trying to find the target group to market a movie to, these haphazard gambles emasculate movies in an attempt to address the entertainment needs of the broadest possible demographic. Since horror, by its very nature, is not a universally adored genre, this seems like an outright oxymoron. Still, Paramount tried to pigeonhole Event Horizon and it didn't work. The result was a movie with all the visual panache necessary to make a spectacle splash, but none of the bite that makes fright so fierce. As it stands today, it is an interesting accomplishment in what is, otherwise, the rather standard canon of director Paul W. S. Anderson. While the filmmaker can be blamed for ambition above his actual abilities, his attempted spook show in space has moments of malevolent genius. It also has sputtering half-horrors that never play as nasty as they think they are. We will never see this film the way its creator originally visualized it. What is here, however, deserves reconsideration. It's not as bad as many believe it to be and actually argues for its inclusion in the pantheon of partial successes. Like it or loathe it, Event Horizon is an interesting disappointment—and a lesson in the pitfalls of playing in Tinseltown's toybox.
Event Horizon is found not guilty and is free to go. Paul Anderson is also acquitted and released by the court. Paramount must pay for messing with this movie while it was being made, but gets off with a suspended sentence, due in part to the excellent DVD package they present.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-length Audio Commentary with director Paul W. S. Anderson and Producer Jeremy Bolt
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