Known for its flashes of grotesque violence, sci-fi horror film Event Horizon tells a broader story about our fascination with hell and poor choices.
A deep space vessel is sent to rescue the Event Horizon, a ship that vanished somewhere beyond Neptune in 2040.
The rescuers discover the ship uses black holes to move through wormholes in space, but when they find a recording of the crew’s final moments they realise it has become capable of something far worse.
The big reveal in 1997’s Event Horizon is that the eponymous ship hasn’t just been bending space-time – it has opened a gateway to hell itself.
The ship performs a similar function as the ouija board in The Exorcist (1973) in that both reveal hidden doors, then serve up devilish consequences for opening them. What’s intriguing about Event Horizon is that the film transplants our age-old preoccupation with hell into the secular, almost sterile space age.
In Rosemary’s Baby (1968) fresh fears about the death of God and religion create a gateway that brings Satan into contemporary society. But as later films including The Devil’s Advocate, Se7en and Constantine show, modernity remains fascinated by medieval concepts of good and evil.
This means that while religion and spirituality is missing from both the Event Horizon and rescue vessel Lewis and Clark, the film is nonetheless rife with the dread of hell.
This isn’t the only way the film loops around to connect the space age with the olden days. There’s the naming of the two ships, for starters.
Captains Lewis and Clark mapped the American west in the 1800s, while event horizon – a term coined in the 1950s – describes the way black holes work.
There’s also the language twist. Latin may be a dead language yet someone aboard a spaceship in 2040 happens to speaks it (kind of, though the mistranslation is a key plot point). See also the role of the librarian or knowledge-keeper in Rosemary’s Baby, Se7en and WarGames.
The film’s ultra stylized vision of hell relies on medieval imagery of broken, perverse bodies and the torments of hell.
The first glimpse of this comes from the recovered video of the missing crew. It appears to show them literally in hell (or driven mad by their experience of it), where they kill each other in horrendous ways.
At the end of the film, the demented Dr Weir shows Miller what hell looks like with a montage of grotesque shots. This is a preview of the bad place, yet several of the rescue crew experience it for real while trapped in their floating hell.
Side note: Event Horizon and Se7en arrived at the end of the millennium, and were accompanied by media-driven fears of digital meltdown (the Y2K bug). So perhaps cinema was more preoccupied with ideas of hell and apocalypse as a result.
The Event Horizon accidentally goes to hell, a journey that causes the ship to become possessed and its crew to massacre each other. When the rescuers come aboard, they too become infected by the ship (see also Alien and Macbeth). But there are a couple of patterns to who dies and who gets saved.
Justin (Jack Noseworthy) and Smith (Sean Pertwee) are essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time. Justin gazes into the gravity drive, becoming first catatonic and later suicidal as a result … though technically he doesn’t die. The ship later uses Dr Weir (Sam Neill) to blow up Smith.
However, when Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne), Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) and Weir die it’s a way of atoning for guilt and past wrongs.
Having done the crime each must face the pain of payback at the hands of those they’ve wronged.
Keep in mind the ship’s journey to hell is itself a consequence. As Smith points out: “You break all the laws of physics and you seriously think there wouldn’t be a price?”
Arguably D.J. (Jason Isaacs) falls between camps. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, but boy does he bungle the translation of the distress call. It’s not “save me” but “save yourself from hell” (“liberate tutame ex inferis”).
This is like the inscription above the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno: “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. And it also describes black holes, which could explain why the film uses them as a metaphor for hell in the first place. Black holes are vast, unknown and promise destruction; like hell, they are devoid of light.
In any case, D.J.’s comeuppance nods at the end of The Silence of the Lambs: he’s filleted and hung above his own entrails. Which isn’t nice.
Call it coincidence or consequence, but the characters who survive don’t have a guilty past to atone for.
Starck (Joely Richardson) and Cooper (Richard T. Jones) rescue Justin then blow up the demonic part of the ship and escape.
Having gone into stasis for the journey home, Starck wakes up to discover they’re being rescued … by Weir, who tries to kill them one last time. Then she wakes up and is rescued for real. Or is she?
The ending mimics the start of the film, when Weir dreams about his dead wife during a similar false awakening. When he wakes up for real they’ve just arrived at the Event Horizon. There’s a chance Starck and Cooper haven’t escaped from the ship at all and the cycle is looping around again.
This is also in keeping with the ambiguity of horror film endings, and the genre’s open-endedness.
Horror movies perhaps more than any other genre share common themes, and Event Horizon has a ton of them.
Grief is a significant part of the plot, though this isn’t that surprising for a genre with a bee in its bonnet about death and what lies beyond it (see also Poltergeist).
Hell and horror are linked with madness in the way various crew members lose sense and sanity. See also Sunshine, and compare the way The Exorcist flips between madness and possession.
Note some of the rescuers call each other Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear, with shades of Goldilocks. Fairy tales were primarily always warnings about the consequences of poor choices, so it’s a fitting metaphor in Event Horizon.
It’s also part of a broader storytelling need to resolve (or disrupt) families. Alien does something similar by naming its ship computer Mother. Keep in mind, too, that the film still technically ends with a family unit: Papa Bear, Baby Bear and a new Mama Bear.
It’s a poor deal for the rest of the crew, however. They start out on a rescue mission and end up being destroyed. Like black holes, sometimes there’s no way back from the jaws of hell.
Event Horizon (1997), directed by Paul W. Anderson
Picture credit: Isaac Garcia