It seems to be a commonly held view, retrospectively, that Event Horizon is one of Paul W S Anderson’s better movies, which tells you a lot about the kind of standards he’s been upholding throughout his career. Its fans wax lyrical about the holy grail of a 130-minute director’s cut, as if that would somehow be the saving grace of picture that isn’t only dramatically inert once its entirely derivative premise is revealed and it has nowhere to go with it, but which is also bludgeoned into insensibility by its director’s graceless, one-note barrage of stylistic (I use that word loosely) tics. But then, if you love the thing anyway, the hallowed cut probably would be all its projected to be.
I was ready to love the thing. The idea of Alien meets The Shining, and the promotional stills that heralded its release, promised something at least distinctive and memorable. Unfortunately, all Event Horizon does is borrow, with barely anything left it can call its own. And it doesn’t even borrow well. Anderson has the same kind of heavy metal production aesthetic as Zack Snyder, only with less flair, which means everything for him is about more, more, more, mostly delivered by way of frenetic editing and sound design, buckets of gore, incessant shouting and zero consequent ability to nurture atmosphere, mood or pace, which are usually a good fit for a science fiction, and for horror (and abundant in both the touchstones of Alien and The Shining).
It’s also a serious problem when the “meat” of your movie rests on the old device of characters confronting their own worse nightmares/fears, yet those characters have neither substance (which would put us firmly on their side through their ordeals) or fascinating fears (which would, or might, keep the repetitions engaging). The result is that, for all the in-your-face grue, and grossness, Event Horizon is narratively banal.
You don’t have to look far for movies that do it better; Flatliners and Sphere both have more arresting hallucinations (and neither are exactly high art), while Solaris did it with flying colours a quarter of a century earlier. When it comes to madness in space, Sunshine is another (later) imperfect but considerably more engrossing picture (until it goes off the rails in the final act). Hell, when it comes to inverting the cliché of the black character who’s bound to perish, Deep Blue Sea will have more fun with LL Cool J’s cook’s unlikely survival a couple of years later (and at least there it seems relatively germane to the OTT content; the sudden comic high-jinx of Richard T Jones suggest Anderson is tone-deaf, but of course we knew that).
The sad thing is, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking this might have been good. The production design is top notch, if derivative (the core remains a highly impressive central set); Anderson is solid with his compositions, and able to string together strong imagery, but unfortunately the assembly comes via the mind of a juvenile. You can see the Ridley influences throughout, particularly Alien (crawling around ducts, gathering air tanks while evacuating the ship in a great hurry) and Blade Runner (superhuman Sam Neill beating the shit out of normal guy Larry Fishburne), but he has none of the restraint or desire to inhabit a realm that Scott had back in the early ’80s. Sean Pertwee’s brash crewman is very Scott, but unfortunately, it’s the Scott of Prometheus, the “I love rocks!” Scott where characters have resolved themselves into a succession of nonsense clichés (sample Pertwee line: “What the fucking hell is that?”, although, in fairness, that could have been taken from almost any film he’s been in. How about this one: ‘The ship is fucked!“).
But Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan and Jason Isaacs suggest a picture of pedigree this simply doesn’t have. The characters aren’t even two-dimensional; any impact they have is purely down to the merits of the actors. Joely Richardson is entirely wasted, while Jack Noseworthy’s most interesting quality is his surname. Probably not coincidentally, Philip Eisner has only two other screenplay credits, one of which is the execrable Mutant Chronicles.
From the sound of it, the longer cut would add about half-an-hour of gore (it was cut down after the studio understandably baulked, all over their popcorn); the movie’s quite grisly enough anyway, so it says a lot about the “more mature” tone Anderson was aiming for. I could be charitable and say he was put in an impossible situation in terms of deadlines, but he’s the one who fashioned something so frantic, so thunderously bereft of subtlety. The picture is almost hyperactively random at times, and never doesn’t feel like a mess. Rather than justified portentousness, its foreboding is impotent. And one need only look at his subsequent filmography with its AvP and Resident Evils to ascertain that maturity was never really in the offing.
Is the idea of a ship that’s found a gateway to hell enticing in any way? Probably only if you can approach it in some kind of philosophically considered and erudite fashion, certainly not when you have characters announcing “Hell is only a word. Reality is much, much worse”, yet the director’s vision of same amounts to a conflagration of body horror, blood orgies, eyeball gougings, mutilations and the shallowest (ie corporeal) concepts of torment and suffering. To be fair, Hellraiser, from which this takes some of its cues, also identified with the physically tormented and denigrated, but it had visual verve and Clive Barker’s deranged imagination to carry it. Neill’s possessed Weir eventually ends up resembling Uncle Fester having gone at himself with a Swiss Army knife.
As for the ominous ending, well of course they’re still in hell, or at very least hell is in them. Anderson appears to have put the final, final finish on Resident Evil (until someone reboots it), a franchise he returned to when, it seems, other plans didn’t work out (shades of Bryan Singer and X-Men). This may free him up to make more knock-offs (Pompeii, doing Titanic almost two decades later), remakes (Death Race), or attempts at the umpteenth version of a property that’s having none of it (The Three Musketeers). I think we’ll be spared Event Horizon 2, though, which is a small mercy. The thing is, he can put together an action scene – he’s not a bad B-movie director in that regard – but let him near a property with any aspirations outside of the muscle-brained, and you’re onto a loser.