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Where We're Going, We Won't Need Eyes To See: Event Horizon Revisited
Dean Sobers , October 19th, 2009 08:03

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On a basic level, there are perhaps two major regions of the science fiction landscape. A number of stories attempt to explore how we and our preconceptions change as our experience broadens. Other stories foresee how future experience will affirm entrenched ideas with cosmic impact. One of the most entertaining of these old ideas is Hell. "Hell", explains a sinister Sam Neill – thesping firmly from that latter side of the canon – "is just a word. The reality is much, much worse."

The film is Event Horizon – Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1997 ‘haunted-house-in-space’ opus that, judging by evidence, knocked the ascendant director’s career from orbit. It was a commercial and – to a large extent – critical, misfire, succeeded by a string of deserving flops and franchise tie-ins (think Soldier, Alien Vs Predator, the Resident Evil series). It has since developed a cult following, but remains cruelly overlooked for the milestone that it is – in terms of its aesthetic, its accomplished synthesis of elements, and in how well it has aged over the years.

About an unaccountably derelict star ship mysteriously returned from a seven year voyage through a black hole, the movie’s heritage can be traced back most definitively to the Disney classic The Black Hole. In that earlier film (30 years old this year), Joseph Bottoms glances through a porthole at an unnerving triumph of seventies special effects, and observes "Every time I see one of those things I expect to see some guy in red with horns and a pitchfork." Both films harvest the metaphysical import that we attribute to these enigmatic space phenomena. They are "the most destructive force in the universe", warns Event Horizon’s lieutenant Starck (played solemnly by Joely Richardson), and – as far as our knowledge goes – great wells into oblivion. Through the cinematic lens we’re returned at once to old myths of the sea dropping off the edge of the world, and to reflections from the void of whichever religious archetypes we choose to project in place of our understanding. In the earlier film, the black hole plays centre stage in a funeral ritual, receiving the coffin of a dead sentry. Anderson takes this kind of reverence about as far as is possible.

The Event Horizon spacecraft was shaped to resemble an altar, and in design was allegedly a composite of scanned photographs of the Notre Dame Cathedral, reconfigured like lego blocks and then rendered in metal. From the movie’s vertiginous opening shot where we pitch down towards it – with the gas giant Neptune churning immensely (and silently) in the background – it makes for a more than imposing precedent for what’s to follow. We’ve routinely been launching spacecraft into the celluloid cosmos for decades, but how many as visually striking as the Event Horizon?

Its crucifix-like shapes, dark, slitted windows and looming turrets present a gothic malevolence difficult to misinterpret, but inside Anderson seemed intent on creating a much less graspable environment. Perhaps in homage to acknowledged influence The Haunting - where the demonic house was all off-kilter angles and asymmetry – Event Horizon’s interiors were complex multi-levelled constructions, many of the walls and surfaces curved (the iconic ‘First Containment’ passage in fact rotating). Coupled with this was the director’s keenness on ‘circularity’. The reveal of the Daylight space station near the beginning – where we pull back from a window and spiral outwards into space – has a literally dizzying power. But rather than functioning as a one-off set-piece shot, this visual style becomes a motif as the movie progresses. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle’s cameras spend much of their time literally prowling in circles round the characters, or swooping in lopsided arcs around the Event Horizon’s innards (which resemble a kind of art-deco mortuary). Some of this was to simulate the disorientating impression of freefall, but the sum effect was a kinetic-feeling environment that it’s impossible to assemble a mental shape of.

This leads to a mounting atmosphere of permanent unease, with shock moments liberally thrown in to escalate it. The most enduring of these are the scattering of ‘visions’ unleashed by the ship upon the characters, giving impressions of its journey. They last for frames at a time, and portray an apparent orgy of rape, mutilation, cannibalism, impalement, maggots and other such niceties. A great deal of footage was shot for what, in the final cut, amounted to about twenty seconds worth of glimpses. Unused stock exists in various forms of decay: at the time of release DVD extras weren’t a particular consideration and Paramount had little inclination to retain unused footage from the commercially unsuccessful film. This is a good and bad thing. Bad in that it’s always sad to lose artifacts in this way. On the other hand – with most films warranting about eight ‘definitive’ re-cuts post-release – it feels like a kind of bonus to be able to buy a ‘collector’s edition’ that matches for content what cinema-goers experienced.

Those experiences were of course over a decade ago – a pretty good distance from which to judge how well a movie has aged. Any longer and we’re looking back with a detached fondness for the era; shorter and we’re essentially still part of it. Promoting Event Horizon’s release, magazine spreads conveyed the quality of CGI employed for its signature composite shots (take the Daylight pull-back sequence, for instance), in how many thousands of floppy discs would be filled by the data. What comes across now is how meticulously those sequences seem to reflect the year’s worth of time and effort invested in them, resulting in imagery with the impact of key scenes from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.

A further boon to the film’s posterity is its elegant arrangement as a narrative. Philip Eisener’s original script was allegedly dense and complex, with the shipboard evil in the form of tentacular creatures that had stowed away onboard during its interdimensional excursion. Many of these specifics were pared down for a more elemental story, enigmatic in its vagaries, but hovering (as The Shining did) on just the right side of frustrating. In the scene where Laurence Fishburne describes to Jason Issacs the destructive beauty of fire in zero gravity, Anderson forgoes the almost obligatory flashback sequence, and we’re left in Event Horizon’s aftermath trawling other sources for a visual corroboration for the terms used (there’s a good example in Andrei Ujica’s otherwise unengaging documentary of life aboard the Mir Space Station, Out Of The Present, incidentally). In Anderson’s film, the ship became the real character, the flesh and blood characters rather, types (the stoic captain, morbid doctor, Faustian genius, wisecracking black guy, etc.) However, a strong ensemble performance from a talented cast breathes real life into Eisener’s and Andrew Kevin Walker’s often stilted dialogue ("The dark inside me…from the other place"), adding a dimension of genuine empathy and believability to the embattled salvage team. It’s in this area (essentially – smart casting) where, above a number of glaring aesthetic similarities, Event Horizon best compares to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Anderson was barely in his thirties when he made Event Horizon, in itself a kind of cathedral to his horror and sci-fi influences. An amusing moment on the movie’s DVD extras is a deleted scene of Sam Neill’s ‘Weirbeast’ creature crawling in spiderlike fashion down a ladder. It was intended to evoke a scene that was itself removed from the original cut of The Exorcist.

Event Horizon, in turn, has an inescapable influence on subsequent films that have strayed into that ‘haunted-house-in-space’ sub-category of sci-fi horror (take Sunshine, for instance), though few would easily acknowledge the debt and, arguably, none since have surpassed it.

As a producer, Anderson did unsuccessfully attempt that very feat a couple of weeks ago with sci-fi chiller Pandorum. From him now, we look forward to Resident Evil: Afterlife due out next Autumn, and accept that the talented director who built and burned this entrancing world within Pinewood studios in the mid-nineties is currently living his own kind of afterlife.

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Johnny Nothing
Oct 19, 2009 8:27pm

You've got to be kidding me. Nothing happened. It sucked ass, dude.

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Luke Turner
Oct 20, 2009 12:27am

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

I don't think "It sucked ass, dude" quite qualifies as an adequate response to this article. Are you American? And what are you on about, they went to hell and a man exploded in an airlock. Is that your daily routine?

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Oct 20, 2009 1:47am

seeing this film is one of my most vivid cinema memories... aged 9 sneaking into the hotel film room on holiday in majorca and having the absolute living shit scared out of me. it's a great movie.

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Oct 20, 2009 11:35am

An excellent soundtrack too, with Orbital welding their metallic clunks and squeals onto Michael Kamen's spectral orchestration. Precious little of Orbital's contribution made it too the final cut, however; which is doubly unfortunate when you remember that someone decided, inexplicably, that the best way to play the film out would be with The Prodigy's Funky Shit.

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Oct 21, 2009 10:01am

Funny, I just bought the DVD a few days ago, remembering what a positive surprise this film was compared to so many other Sci-Fi/Horror films. Now that I've read the article with all the details you pointed out, I will enjoy re-watching it a lot more. Indeed an underrated classic that deserves a cult following.

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Oct 21, 2009 11:52am

I don't know if i love the movie, but it impressed me and scared me even more.

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Daniel Link
Oct 21, 2009 12:46pm

I never watched Event Horizon until renting it last year. Is it an epoch of sci-fi and horror? No, not really. Many of the bases in this film were covered by Ridley Scott and Clive Barker years before. I doubt it will be considered a classic in the decades to come, save for maybe the "cult" variety.

That said, I enjoyed the Hell out of it--pun surprisingly not intended. Fishburne and Neill did great jobs, and I wish there had been more of Jason Isaacs' character. But yes, the aesthetic was unparalled at the time and remains so to this day (maybe; I haven't seen Pandorum). Great article.

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Oct 21, 2009 1:18pm

Liberate tutemae ex inferis

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Oct 21, 2009 1:36pm

While I agree that many of the effects and the ship's design are still somewhat haunting and malevolent today, after rewatching the film, I still run into the same problems that I did the first time. As excited as I was with the concept of the movie, every time I felt like I got up to a jog, something would trip me up. I didn't really care if anyone other than Fishburne or Neill survived the journey. Otherwise it was flat characters like the second in command or stilted stock Sci-Fi dialogue; e.g. YOU CAN'T MESS WITH THE LAWS OF PHYSICS, MAN!!. As much as my skin crawled with the quick cuts of the ship's log, every time the shuck and jive, basically racist Cooper came on, I was simply ripped out of the movie. It was an admirable effort.

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Oct 21, 2009 1:57pm

You know what i remembered about this movie? The cheap BS 'scares' that seemed to be on a freaking egg timer. You know, the kind of scares that consist of dead silence, then OMG a HAND is grabbing my helmet from behind accompanied by a LOUD NOISE....only to find out....oh its just a glove floating around due to the zero gravity. or how about cabinet doors suddenly opening with a loud bang? This movie was a complete POS.

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Jersey Tomato
Oct 21, 2009 2:17pm

Dude, you took the words out of my mouth. I have loved this film from the very first time I saw it.

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Rubix Qoob
Oct 21, 2009 2:29pm

Always felt this was an underrated movie. Too spooky for some of my friends and my ex-girl wouldn't even watch it.

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Oct 21, 2009 3:29pm

Just to clarify. The ship doesn't travel through a black hole. It visits a 'hell' dimension because of a malfunction of it's engines. Engines which fold space in order to travel vast distances instantaneously.

You would think that by 'revisiting' the author of this article would get the most basicness of the plot.

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Oct 21, 2009 4:05pm

In reply to :

The ships engine create a black hole. Sam Neill just described it as creating a fold in space/time. The fact that the engines created it is erroneous, a black hole is a black hole.

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Oct 21, 2009 5:45pm

Event Horizon: Re-edited.

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Oct 21, 2009 6:34pm

This is a well-worded and enlightening piece on a film I had forgotten about a long time ago. I will be visiting this site again based on the quality of this writing. Thank you.

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Oct 21, 2009 6:41pm

I always thought that if this movie was labeled as Kubrick movie instead of a Paul Anderson movie, it would have been critically hailed. I think it didn't do well because it was so creepy and oblique.

While I don't LOVE this movie, I have always liked it immensely. Then again, I think Laurence Fishburne could read the phone book and I'd be pleased :D

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Oct 21, 2009 7:00pm

yeah what a scary movie. just watched it again yesterday.
one of my fav's. wish they would make a sequel.
i'm always wondering what happened to the captain the guy who built it when they disappeared into that dark hole. Where did they go? What does it look like there?

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Oct 21, 2009 7:03pm

Excellent article! Definitely a sci-fi favorite, even though the director has done nothing even close to the caliber of this film. It's horror and sci-fi at it's best. I revisit it at least twice a year (especially in October), so thank you for publishing this!

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Ken H
Oct 21, 2009 7:26pm

When I entered my teens I also entered an age of reason. I learned that there were could be no such things as vampires or zombies. The fact that I thought that nothing would ever scare me the way I was scared when I was a kid kind of saddened me on a deep subconscious level. Then I went to see Event Horizon. You could make a drinking game out of the scenes that there were copied and pasted from other screenplays (ie the blood flood from the Shining, various Hellraiser inspired visages, A gateway to hell from Prince of Darkness, it goes on) I don't know what the hell it was but I, a man in his late 20s, sat in my apartment for the next three nights, wide awake with the lights on, trying to exercise the image of the self blinded captain. Liberte tu ta me ex inferis.

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A Braunsdorf
Oct 21, 2009 7:36pm

I saw Event Horizon in the cinema when it came out. The opening shot was incredible on the big screen.

I've always thought it was a flawed movie with a great movie inside it. If Anderson went back to it with the resources plowed into Blade Runner, for instance, I wonder if he could come up with something that lives up to its potential- or if that's really all that could be done.

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Oct 21, 2009 7:50pm

In reply to Luke Turner:

Woah, do we really need to go straight to the "Are you American?" comment? There aren't inarticulate morons in the UK, Luke? I'm mostly just offended to be grouped in the same category as Johnny.

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Oct 21, 2009 8:23pm

Having seen Event Horizon on the TV several times over the last few years, and despite its flaws, this film is still eminently watchable and still disturbing in places

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Mike De Luca
Oct 21, 2009 8:30pm

Thank you for such a thoughtful and intelligent essay. "Event Horizon" is elegant, macabre, and tragically underappreciated. I spoke with Philip Eisner once. He was as thoughtful as his writing would suggest. "Event Horizon" sits proudly on my shelf by "Alien".

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Oct 21, 2009 8:38pm

I remember going to the theater to see this having seen the previews thinking "sci-fi mystery" and coming out scared more than any other theater going experience I had had.

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Oct 21, 2009 9:10pm

In reply to Devo:

Interesting article. I've always had a rather strong opinion about this movie b/c much like Sunshine, I found myself utterly mesmerized by the film's fine acting, fantastic visuals, interesting story and quality character development...only to then watch in horror as the movie completely degraded to a b-movie gore fest in the final act.

In hindsight, having seen Anderson's later efforts, its clear that this was the fatally flawed opus of a second rate director.

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Chris Kelly
Oct 21, 2009 9:10pm

Interesting essay. You raise a lot of provocative points. But you've set aside something important. Event Horizon is a piece of shit.

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Oct 21, 2009 10:39pm

I was 20 years old when Event Horizon came out. Me and my friends were total suckers for horror in space flicks, so we went at saw a 70 millimeter print on opening day. I remember being caught so off-guard by the "Orgy of Destruction" scene. It kind of comes out of nowhere. We were sitting third row and even though it's only in flashes, the idea behind it was so much more hardcore than anything the film had presented until then. On a 70 mil print, that scene just filled my world with a vision of Hell I wasn't aware I buying when I shelled out my 7 bucks. I remember Fishburne's throwaway reaction to the footage, "Alright, we're leaving." got a big laugh.

The rest of the movie is good, gross, campy fun. I remember the audience just lost it when Fishburne I still marvel at how far Sam Neil was willing to go for his role, buck naked at the end and covered in lacerations...a long way from Jurassic Park for sure.

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Oct 21, 2009 10:53pm

Seeing Event Horizon for the first time is still one of my most memorable movie-going experiences. It was actually the now-defunct Mr. Showbiz website which raved about the film that piqued my interest. Took a friend, sat in the nearly empty theater, and broke into a nervous sweat for the length of the film. It was truly scary, claustrophobic, creative, freakish. Not nearly as violent as half the horror films released today, it's a bit sad to learn that a lot of the footage has been lost.

It's too bad Paul Anderson (not to be confused with the other Paul Thomas Anderson, who is infinitely more talented) has gone on to make such crappy films. Event Horizon is like that diamond in the rough of his career. He basically cobbled together parts of 2001, Alien, Blade Runner, Solaris, and Hellraiser and was able to make a successful blend of them.

Certainly not a great film by any means, but it will remain in my mind for the sheer scare factor.

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Elizabeth II
Oct 21, 2009 11:24pm

The people who didn't like this movie wouldn't even know a good movie if it punched them in the face, much like I would like to do to them.

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Oct 22, 2009 12:04am

In reply to Boyd:

Solaris was released in 2002, five years after Event Horizon. I also saw this in theaters with a friend and it scared the crap out of both of us. I loved it then for that fact alone, having always loved and laughed at horror movies. Now I won't watch it at nighttime. If not great, then truly memorable and deeply disturbing.

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Oct 22, 2009 12:35am

In reply to Luke Turner:

yep because only an american could have an uneducated opinion about a film... pretentious asshole

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Oct 22, 2009 1:14am

In reply to Luke Turner:

Oh hey mr turner, mighty full of ourselves aren't we? Can't think of a valid argument so gonna play the nationality card eh? Sure, Johnny's comment was a bit low brow, but surely you can use that brain of yours to think of a better response than 'are you american?' Are YOU American..? hmmm British perhaps? Maybe Australian? As you can probably see, you are in fact no more part of a country (imaginary border lines) than anybody else. What does it mean to call someone american, british, or canadian? Well, not a whole lot when you get down to it. So please, lets give it the ol' college try and add something more valuable to the conversation than the shit i left in the toilet this morning. Alright kid? Thanks.

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Oct 22, 2009 2:16am

Event Horizon is a terrific movie. It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, but it was fun and scary as hell (no pun intended). So many classic death scenes (the poor airlock bastard, the upside-down disembowelment...) and probably home to one of my favourite and perfectly-timed lines in movie history (after watching the lunatic violence of the ship's log, Fishburne shuts it off and says, "That's it, we're leaving.") It's nice to see someone treat this movie for the respect it deserves, despite its imperfections.

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killing floor
Oct 22, 2009 2:38am

In reply to Luke Turner:

what does it matter whether he's american or not?

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Oct 22, 2009 2:44am

I remember being bitterly disappointed by this film, particualry its resolution, namely it had none.

The direction was OK and the effects were good but it was nothing to write home about.

The script is what let it down. Decent set up and the first hour was fun, but it couldn't resolve itself and the ending was a whimper, certainly no bang.
A nicely written article/essay however articulate language can't undo another Paul WS Anderson mess

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Loon, a tick
Oct 22, 2009 3:17am

In reply to Marisol:

Solaris was first filmed by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and released in 1972.

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Oct 22, 2009 4:16am

I'm glad that Sunshine was mentioned. It seemed to me as if another director was staring Anderson down and saying 'see, that's how you do that.'

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Justin Bailey
Oct 22, 2009 4:28am


That was thing we kept saying to each other on the ride home. Looked great, but let's say... it had flaws. That and the techno music which was interchangable from any other techno-credit-music in other movies from that year.

The real scary thing is the movie theater I saw that in is gone! It's a hollow husk on the edge of town now. Bizarre.

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Oct 22, 2009 5:33am

I saw this film when it first hit theatres in 1997. I had very high hopes and was on the edge of my seat during the opening shots with that menacing hugely looming shot of Neptune. When the plot disintegrated into a tale of a demonically possessed spaceship, my interest began to wane quite fast. What was really scary to me was the idea of being that close to Neptune with its violently whirring mega-tornadoes and gases spinning in winds more powerful than the Earth could ever imagine. I wanted to see that. Demons and splatter films and bloodbaths are earthly horrors that we create with our own violent minds. The mysteries of the universe are far more chilling. I guess I wanted more of a space movie, not Friday the 13th,2001: A Hellraiser Odyssey.

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Oct 22, 2009 5:38am

In reply to :

Basicness is not a word.

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Oct 22, 2009 6:32am

That's the first time I've seen Paul WS Anderson described as a talented director. Probably the last too.

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Oct 22, 2009 6:50am

In reply to Richard:

I couldn't agree more.

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Oct 22, 2009 8:16am

It is such a shame about how this film is overlooked but I think it's getting more popular due to it's influence being noticed in a lot more things like the game Dead Space. Brilliant article, thanks for posting.

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R. Father
Oct 22, 2009 6:09pm

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

The film itself has little to do with Aliens and everything to do with Stuart Gordon channeling Lovecraft in From Beyond. Fulci's The Beyond, Gordon's From Beyond, Anderson's Event Horizon -- all are movies that lose control because the writers and director were intoxicated by their just-out-of-reach view of a nightmarish realm. All have that in common with their predecessor and progenitor, H.P. Lovecraft. All gained in atmosphere what they lost in self-restraint.

BTW: So many people blasted Luke Turner for his pejorative nationalism that they missed his hilarious response to the phrase, "Nothing happened":

"They went to hell and a man exploded in an airlock. Is that your daily routine?"

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Blatanoszlaw Gwagnewheauph
Oct 22, 2009 6:44pm

Reviewer: Thanks for writing an internet essay sufficiently literate to stall my urge to set fire to my own sideburns. That said, I had problems with this bit:

"[T]he talented director who built and burned this entrancing world within Pinewood studios in the mid-nineties is currently living his own kind of afterlife."

While I'm not a fan of his later films either, it seems unkind for you to suggest he might as well be dead. He's still allowed to make films, after all, and might eventually create something of lasting value. It isn't an accident that Event Horizon was a blow to his career and he's never tried anything as grim or ambitious since.

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Jan 5, 2010 7:47pm

Paul Anderson is not a good director, and if anything merely lucked out on picking up such a fantastic idea for a script. The script itself has weaknesses, but the stellar acting of Neill and Fishburne keep it alive even in its most fragile places. The ideas behind Event Horizon were what made it creepy -- I feel like it was nearly fleshed out and certainly would have been massively successful if Anderson hadn't gotten his paws on it.

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Feb 6, 2012 6:32pm

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

I love the 'dude' at the end of you comment, it just makes the whole thing *work*...
But back to the movie - I always struggled with the comprehension of this 'alternate universe' where everyone is screaming and mutilating themselves/others. What I mean is, how does anything get accomplished there? You cant just have everything being torn down all the time, it would never be built up in the first place! For instance, what are the long term employment prospects in a universe like that? How do you go about teaching young ones the foundations of this 'alternate' society when they will likely get torn apart and eaten soon after birth?

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Jan 2, 2013 6:49pm

In reply to FrankJ:

This movie still doesn't get the praise it deserves. It still is by far the best 'Haunted House Sci-Fi' movie indeed. Almost all in its wake have failed misreably (not in the least Pandorum by Anderson).
Does that mean this is a classic? No, most certainly not: the scary scenes are cliché as are the tension build-ups. Some of the cast is superfluous and doesn't really contribute anything. And there are other crucial flaws.
But scenes like the opening dream scene with EH floating silently next to Neptune were inspiring and downright good. The idea behind the movie and the concept are great too and we all agree that visually, it was a stunning movie.
As far as the idea of the 'Hell' world goes, I would like to think of it as being inspired by Danté's Inferno, where the people are basically caught in endless loops of torture.
Again, not a masterpiece but certainly not a piece of shit either. A good Nineties film that had great sci-fi moments and design, but failed in the horror department. With some adjusting (perhaps even a directors cut), this could have become a classic.

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Latin grammar nazis from the dark side of the moon
Jun 28, 2015 4:56am

In reply to Andy:

In case anyone finds it fun to know a more correct sentence, I don't think ”tutemae” has ever been used in latin; probably an error in transcription somewhere.

It seems it should have been ”libera te tutemet ex inferis”.

”Liberate” indicates a plural object; ”liberate vos”.
”-met” is archaic intensifier, so -mae doesn't seem correct, though they do not pronounce the /t/ in the movie. The latin in the script was probably wrong already.

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Neil A
Sep 6, 2015 5:48pm

Saw this at the Odeon Leicster Square when it first came out. I'm a Sci-Fi, but not a horror fan (yes I am scaredy cat).

It scared the shit out of me and I'll never forget it.

Visually arresting, great cast, excellent VFX for the time, yes borrowing heavily and with some cliché.

I heard at the time from someone who worked on it that they couldn't end the film the way they wanted because the CGI [tentacled?] "monster" couldn't be realistically rendered at that time.

As many have said, far from a perfect film but one I still have vivid memories of seeing.

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Gregg Z
Feb 11, 2016 3:16am

I've always thought this film was very well done. It stayed with me for years and I am glad it's been reconsidered. Great visuals and a terrific hook.

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