Lost in space

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Critic After Dark

Event Horizon
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

PAUL W.S. ANDERSON’s Event Horizon is arguably the Mary Celeste of science fiction cinema, not just being the story of a ship lost in the vast oceans of space but the film itself falling victim to malevolent forces (Paramount Studios) and mutilated, the missing portions gone forever.

Romantic? Yes. The film itself?

In 2047 (not impossibly far off — our present has caught up with Blade Runner’s future for one) the USAC search and rescue vessel Lewis and Clark has been sent to recover the Event Horizon, a starship lost on its maiden voyage some seven years before.

The larger ship is a magnificent presence: massive hammerhead prow (looking like the kind of forged-steel mallet the god Vulcan would swing against his anvil), graceful swan neck, and two wings sprouting from either side of a blunt goose belly. Anderson invests these opening sequences with a sweeping operatic grandeur — his camera pulls back from an upside-down window to the long-shot view of a low-orbit station in a dizzying slow spiral that reportedly cost a fifth of the film’s budget; introduces the Event Horizon like a derelict floating off the atmosphere of Neptune (faint flash of lightning bolts sizzling far below).


An early sequence has Dr. Weir (Sam Neill) waking up from cryosleep aboard the Lewis and Clark, amniotic fluids draining to release him; he looks round and the sight of bodies in ghostlit suspend animation feels dreamlike, eerie, the camera stealthily circling him only reinforcing his vulnerability (we keep expecting someone to reach out from the edge of the frame to tap his shoulder). He wanders into the ship’s control cabin and sees his dead wife Claire, naked, sitting in the pilot’s seat, sees her reflection on a dead screen (are her eyes shut?). She turns; her eyes are shut. We’re burrowed deep into our chairs at this point, armrests in a death grip, looking for an eject button to push.

The early scenes are best, showcasing Anderson’s visual virtuosity. He’s possibly the most interesting genre filmmaker around, a genuine talent with a keen eye apparently determined to confine himself to genre productions (video game adaptations in Mortal Kombat; science-fiction combat horror in the Resident Evil movies; historical disaster-romance in Pompeii). Like Tarantino he’s a fan of pop and pulp (literally, in some cases) cinema, mashing categories together to create monstrous combinations like a mad scientist in his bubbling testtube-infested, lightingbolt-lit laboratory deep in the castle dungeons (or high up a mountain aerie); unlike Tarantino he’s an actual filmmaker who knows how to make images flow, edit rhythm into his footage, use silence and stillness to build a sense of near-unbearable dread.

This film, I submit, is Anderson’s 2001 (I know, I know; try not to sip hot coffee when reading) his heedlessly expensive tribute to the testicle-shrinking size of the universe and the beautifully designed machines man has constructed to explore all that territory; the Event Horizon itself is strictly out of Alien only more coherently put together (the Nostromo for all its industrial-gothic atmosphere doesn’t really make much schematic sense), the more disturbing horror elements seemingly borrowed from both Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (Hell as an S&M theme park) and Andrei Tarkvosky’s Solaris (the different characters’ past histories come back to haunt them).

Along the way Anderson has commissioned spectacular sets — the Event Horizon, impressive outside is even more impressive inside: the swan neck an endless oval artery lit a sinister amber; the passageway to the engine room a spinning tunnel of serrated blades (“looks like a meatgrinder” someone notes — and in fact that’s the nickname given to a tunnel in Tarkovsky’s other major science-fiction effort Stalker); the engine room itself a great medieval chamber studded with spikes and clockwork gears, dominated by spotlights and a series of massive spinning rings that when lined up reveal a dark pool of unreadable water.

Is the film any good? Hard to tell with reportedly 30 minutes cut out; what’s left is barely functional, with characters developing crazy obsessions (Dr. Weir insisting on saving the Event Horizon despite everything that’s happened) and conclusions being pulled out of rear ends (“What are you telling me, that this ship is alive?” “You wanted an answer and it’s the only one I’ve got.”). I’m reminded of Kurt Russell’s Sgt. Todd in Soldier (arguably my favorite Anderson) — couldn’t vocalize a word but spoke volumes with his morosely deadpan face. The ending is out of desperation: shock cuts and illogical effects (the Lewis and Clark suddenly flooding with blood) and bodies being tossed about in slow motion. One wishes Anderson had been given the time to shoot and assemble the film he wanted, the same time one wonders if Anderson actually had anything in mind to shoot (if not, then no amount of extra budget or time could have saved the production).

And yet, and yet, and yet, one can’t help but form some kind of attachment to this horribly disfigured film full of horrible disfigurement (Anderson being a filmmaker seems naturally obsessed with eyes and their jellylike vulnerability). Not a 100% sure why, possibly demonic forces in me feeling mischievous and acting up — which is a little scary right there.