It would be easy enough to dismiss Event Horizon for what it is--myriad better movies condensed into one lousy one: Alien and Hellraiser and The Shining and Friday the 13th and even The Dirty Dozen and countless others thrown into the Cuisinart. In the end, Event Horizon's really nothing more than a haunted-house story, the tale of a spaceship that went to the furthest reaches of the galaxy only to return as a lifeform itself; think of it as Star Trek: The Motion Picture crossed with The Amityville Horror, and you're halfway home.
It also would be easy enough to knock its cynicism, its cheap-thrill theatrics, its pump-up-the-volume perversions (this is a movie in which even whispers are deafening); so rarely does a movie this big, this unapologetically loud, offer so little in return. But for all its blood-and-guts idiocy, Event Horizon is a stunning looking film, almost like a poem created with steel and metal and dazzling special effects; would that the story lived up to its zero-gravity setting.
The film's title refers to a spaceship sent in the year 2040 to the furthest reaches of the solar system. Its secret purpose was to use new-fangled time-space-displacement technology to transcend light speed, to create a "dimensional gateway" that allows it to travel across the galaxy in the blink of an eye. The ship's core--its "heart," as its wacky creator, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), refers to it--is a brilliant, beautiful 40-foot-tall gyroscope covered in lights and spikes; it doesn't just move, it seems to breathe.
But something goes wrong, and the ship disappears--until 2047, when Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and the crew (including Kathleen Quinlan as Peters and Joely Richardson as Starck) of the search-and-rescue ship Lewis & Clark are sent to Neptune, where they discover the Event Horizon, floating and frozen. Its crew is missing or dead; one crewman is discovered ripped to shreds and frozen solid, his body a floating "corpsicle" that shatters when gravity slams it to the ground. It's a gorgeous effect...and a nauseating one.
It turns out the ship has indeed been to the other side of the galaxy, where it visited not only strange new worlds and new civilizations, but, as it turns out, hell itself--a place ruled by nothing but pure, bloody chaos. When one of the Lewis & Clark's crew is sucked into the dimensional gateway's milk-chocolate center, he returns in shock, his head filled with grotesque images of mouths swallowing arms, of heads without eyes, of skin ripped from muscle and bone. Soon enough, the entire crew begins hearing voices and seeing people they've abandoned or forgotten. Fishburne is haunted by the charred corpse of an old shipmate he left behind to die in a zero-gravity fire; Neill is visited by his dead wife who committed suicide while he was off working on his precious ship.
It is, of course, the oldest trick in the book--bringing your heroes' fears to life and then having them rendered as flesh; what good is the ghost that can't wield a blade or rip your eyes out (turns out you don't need eyes in hell, maybe because it's so goddamned loud)? And the notion of a living machine is sci-fi cliche; it is our worst fear realized, knowing we no longer control our own creations. But Richard Yurich, the visual effects supervisor (the man behind the look of Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), has created an astonishing metal beast that breathes and bleeds; there's no alien hiding behind the corner, because the corner itself can kill you.
It's too bad, then, that Anderson (whose only other major credit is Mortal Kombat, but of course) and first-time screenwriter Philip Eisner felt so compelled to do away with suspense and turn Event Horizon into a big-budget slasher film. They'd rather shock you with things that go bump in the night than craft a well-told story, rather shove you in the muck than merely point you in the right direction. Out of nowhere, they turn Sam Neill's Dr. Weir into the eyeball-free Son of Satan; he starts gutting crewmen, turning one inside-out and hanging him from the ceiling a la Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Miller, for his part, is an island of righteousness on this ship of sick shit; he wants nothing more than to get off the Event Horizon and blow it back to where it came from. He knows the screams of the dead are all inside his head, and yet it's not enough. A good heart and a steadfast scowl won't defeat the King of Chaos any day of the week, just as great effects and beautiful sets and all the blood in the world will never compensate for a lousy story.
Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Joely Richardson, Kathleen Quinlan. Written by Philip Eisner. Directed by Paul Anderson. Opens Friday.