Event Horizon (1997)

D: Paul Anderson
S: Lawrence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Joley Richardson

Cheaply-made cross-breed of Alien, Hellraiser and The Amityville Horror (with a smidgen of Solairs) pitting a disparate group of astronauts against sinister forces inside a derelict space craft. Essentially a haunted house movie set in outer space, Event Horizon is composed perhaps of overly-familiar ingredients and squanders several opportunities to turn the screws and produce some gripping variants on the formula. But it does a solid enough job within its own frames of reference and provides some of the requisite chills, shocks and moments of gruesome nastiness necessary for an average genre hit.

Sam Neill is the scientist whose experimental space ship 'Event Horizon' disappeared seven years before on a top secret mission. When it suddenly reappears in a decaying orbit around Neptune, he joins a special rescue team bound to recover what crew and equipment they can. Lawrence Fishburne is the no-nonsense captain of the rescue vessel, aided by a crew including Joley Richardson and Sean Pertwee (of i.d. fame). The Alien ingredients immediately become obvious as we begin to pick out which characters will die and when as soon as they are introduced (though, funnily enough, Richardson's Ripley-inspired first officer is the most underdeveloped character in the film).

Meanwhile Neill explains that the ship was sent on a mission to exceed light speed through using an artificial black hole as its engine to 'fold space' (a welcome, if tiny, fragment of non-Star Trek sci-fi physics). Its disappearance and its whereabouts for seven years are a mystery that he desperately wants to solve, his devotion to his work having driven his wife to suicide and taken him into a world of guilt and obsession ever since. When the team arrives on the spacecraft, they find themselves assailed by creepy hallucinations which reveal secret demons from their past as they try to piece together what happened to the previous crew. Eventually they come to the conclusion that the ship has not come back from the beyond quite the same as it went and realise that they are in grave danger.

Philip Eisner's script contains elements of several previous films, most notably Alien and Hellraiser. But in itself it is too slackly-structured. It does not really allow enough time for the characters to develop and insufficiently establishes their predispositions to hell and damnation before the nightmares set in. This is particularly evident in the character played by Neill, who abruptly transforms from the geeky, expositional scientist into an obsessional maniac seemingly 'possessed' by the ship. The revelations about his wife come too late to allow us time to study his descent, which is then too sudden to be frightening (and a real opportunity has been missed to put her among the original crew of the haunted ship and thus make his attraction to its evil charms all the more inevitable).

It is as if Anderson and Eisner are more concerned with shock than terror, and thus hit you with the gruesome images before building motivation (after taking the requisite amount of time to wander the spooky corridors in anticipation of some cinematic 'stinger'). The result is somehow less than either Alien or Hellraiser, without the former's gripping, quiet suspense or the latter's ability to draw you into the depths of human depravity and righteous hellish retribution. Too many of the characters' fatal flaws are merely minor (with some of them seemingly blameless), and the central opposition between Fishburne and Neill is muted by the clumsy exposition. The former's eventual sacrifice to save his crew is not quite as heroic as seems to have been intended, and menacing as Neill becomes in the film's latter stages, he never manages to be truly frightening because our sympathies for him are never fully engaged before he goes off the rails.

On the technical side, the film is obviously less well financed than many of its Hollywood equivalents, and generally uses its resources very well. The production design is suitably oppressive, more possessed of the baroque decorations of horror films than the usual clinical functionalism of science-fiction, and the gory makeup effects are given the swift, almost subliminal exposure necessary to keep things on the right side of unsettling. Anderson, who helmed the computer game adaptation Mortal Kombat, has enough directorial competence to keep the film moving, and though the shocks become quickly predictable, he does manage to sustain an atmosphere of tension strong enough to keep the audience from laughing outright.

But overall, Event Horizon is something of a missed opportunity; ordinary when it might have been quite gripping, eerie when it might have been frightening, and occasionally risible despite the best efforts of all concerned. It is unlikely to generate a substantial cult following but is interesting in its own way and worth a peek for genre fans.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.