Friday, March 27, 2015
From the Archive: Event Horizon (1997)
On a purely surface level, the science-fiction/horror film Event Horizon (1997) is a sturdy amalgamation of familiar imagery from the cinema’s storied past and traditions.
The film’s central visual of a haunted spaceship extruding blood by the gallon seems to emerge from a similar image (of an evil hotel elevator…) in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), for instance.
Meanwhile, the notion of an inscrutable -- and unseen -- alien entity manifesting living “guests” from the memories of bewildered human beings deliberately evokes memories of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Solaris (1972).
And certainly -- with doorways to Hell opening and closing willy-nilly, and one character’s transformation (or degradation…) into the Devil’s inquisitor -- there seem to be powerful echoes of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) evident here as well.
Ultimately, however, the familiarity of these images does subtract one iota from the film’s thematic coherence or its success as a compelling work of art.
On the contrary, these visuals are carefully marshaled by director Paul Anderson to convey the film’s overriding theme: Catholic guilt.
Specifically, at least three main characters in Event Horizon suffer from feelings of intense guilt about their past behavior.
I call it Catholic guilt because that’s an easy and familiar short-hand for many of us. Explicitly speaking, Catholic guilt arises from one’s knowledge of personal wrong-doing. It is felt by all people, however, who are intelligent and insightful enough to realize that they have committed moral trespasses.
The key aspect that makes this guilt “Catholic,” perhaps, is the knowledge that Jesus died for man’s sins, and yet in sinning again, we betray that merciful act. In sinning, we waste the greatest gift it is possible to receive.
Accordingly, those who suffer with the weight of guilt must decide how to harness and re-purpose their feelings. Knowledge of guilt can lead to great acts…or merely deeper shame.
That is the key leitmotif of Event Horizon.
There are two men -- mirror images -- in the film, who choose to succumb to darkness, but do so for utterly different reasons, and with very different objectives.
One succumbs as a direct, nihilistic renunciation of faith and goodness, and the other does so as an affirmative act; one of both a self-punishment and self-sacrifice.
Given this theme, Event Horizon is brilliantly constructed -- from sets and dialogue, to camera compositions and special effects -- as a direct expression of Catholicism, and specifically the harsh Catholicism of the Middle Ages.
“God help us.”
In 2047 AD, a small search and rescue ship, Lewis and Clark -- under command of Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) -- is dispatched to Neptune to respond to a distress call from a vessel that has been missing for seven years: Event Horizon.
Aboard the Lewis and Clark is one passenger, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill).
He is the scientist who designed Event Horizon, and he reports to the crew that it was a prototype with a “gravity drive,” an engine that could fold space-time by opening a doorway between dimensions.
After a rocky ride to Event Horizon, the crew of Lewis and Clark explores the derelict ship.
Lt. Starck (Joely Richardson) is perplexed by the fact that her scanners keep picking up trace life-forms on the ship, but at no specific location. It’s as though the whole ship is a life-form.
The ship’s doctor, Peters (Kathleen Quinlan), meanwhile, discovers carnage on the long-missing vessel’s bridge. All the crew died, and in grievously bloody circumstances.
Worse, Engineer Justin (Jack Noseworthy) explores the engineering section of the ship, and is pulled into a dark black vortex at the gravity drive site. He returns from his visit to the “other place’ in a state of shock and catatonia.
Although Weir insists the gravity drive could not have activated itself, Captain Miller begins to grow suspicious of the ship…especially after he sees a strange specter, himself: a burning man from his past.
While technician Cooper (Richard T. Jones) attempts to repair the Lewis and Clark, which was damaged when the gravity drive was apparently activated, the remainder of the ship’s crew starts seeing additional hallucinations.
Weir keeps seeing his wife, who committed suicide in a bath tub.
And Peters repeatedly sees phantasms of her crippled young son, whom she left at home on Earth.
The burning man witnessed by Miller is also someone from a personal and shameful past: an officer whom the captain was forced to leave behind in a catastrophe.
Soon another horror occurs.
The captain’s log is re-activated, and Miller’s crew sees the Event Horizon crew going mad…totally insane. The crew’s bizarre and violent behavior leads Dr. Weir to conclude that when it activated the gravity drive, Event Horizon entered a dimension of pure chaos and pure evil…Hell itself.
Now, the ship wants a new crew.
Miller hatches a strategy to destroy Event Horizon and return home, but first must contend with a demonic Weir, a man who has willingly given himself to the dark…
“It knows my fears. It knows my secrets.”
The men and women depicted throughout Event Horizon are all facing a very specific Monster from the Id: guilt.
First and foremost, Dr. Weir is ravaged by his feelings of guilt. When we first meet the character, he is alone in his quarters on a space station, and he looks longingly at a shrine he has set up to his dead wife.
He tenderly touches a photograph of her, and says aloud “I miss you.”
This opening sequence brilliantly telegraphs -- without overtly stating it -- the motivations for Weir’s intense guilt.
We see him use the rest room, and shave his face. But while he is shaving, his gaze wanders irrevocably over to the bath-tub, where water is dripping ever so slowly.
Then he stares at the straight razor in his hands…just inches from his own neck.
With no dialogue or weighty exposition, these visuals immediately convey the connection between objects. We understand instantly that Weir’s wife took her own life, and that, in some way, Weir feels responsible for her final, monstrous act.
Later, we learn more. When Weir sees the ghost of his wife, she is still nude, and bearing the wounds of her death in the tub. Weir tells her “I know I wasn’t there when you needed me. I let my work come between us.”
The source of Weir’s intense guilt is that he never helped his wife. He never went to her when she was hurting, when she needed him. And worse: he knew she needed him.
But Weir wanted to continue working (presumably on Event Horizon). In a very real sense, then, the ship is a child of their failed marriage, a product of his decision to remain away from her. It is his sin personified, and a haunted expression of his guilt.
Weir is tortured by his failure to save his wife, and he experiences visions of her in the “deep cold” of the gravity couch, even before returning to Event Horizon. She speaks words to him that she also no doubt said in real life: “I’m so alone.”
This is the call for help Weir willfully ignored.
She also says words that indicate her suffering has not ended, even in death. “Billy, I’m so cold…”
Late in the film, Weir is forced to relive his wife’s suicide in the bath-tub, and perhaps this is the final reckoning for him.
Instead of continuing to resist the darkness, or finding a constructive way to contend with his guilt, Weir surrenders to it. He gives over to it.
Weir realizes that his sin can’t be forgiven, and that he is truly a terrible sinner. When Miller tells him they must go home, Weir responds that he is already home. He believes he belongs in Hell…or at least aboard the physical manifestation of his sin, the Event Horizon.
In essence then, Weir doubles-down on his feelings of Catholic Guilt, and is not able to erect something constructive from his emotions or feelings. When his wife implores “Be with me…forever,” Weir consigns himself to damnation. He believes that’s what he deserves.
Captain Miller is the second character in the film suffering explicitly from terrible guilt.
He keeps seeing phantasms of a man named Corrick, a crewman whom he left behind to die in a fire.
Corrick’s death has haunted Miller in the same way that Weir’s wife’s suicide has haunted the good doctor. Miller has closed off all of his emotions and humanity, and become a sort of military martinet, one who shows no humanity towards his crew, and yet worries about them incessantly.
He can’t lose another one. That’s his worst fear: reliving the pain and the ensuing guilt.
Accordingly, the evil ship manifests the monster from Miller’s id. The burning man -- Corrick -- appears to Miller and begs him “Captain, don’t leave me…”
However, Miller finally does something that Weir never manages: he confesses his guilt. The captain tells one of his crew-members, Smith (Sean Pertwee) the entire story:
“I did the only thing I could. I closed the lifeboat hatch…and I left him.” Miller reveals.
Importantly, it is after this confession of sin and recognition of guilt that Miller starts to take away Event Horizon’s power over him.
The ship knows his “fears” and “secrets,” but now at least one member of his crew does so as well. With his options for survival narrowed, Miller makes a selfless decision (and one that honors Christ’s choice to “save” mankind): He remains on Event Horizon to stop Weir so that Starck, Cooper and Justin can live.
In essence, Miller gives his life for theirs, and thus exorcises his demon, his guilt. By staying behind, and making certain that his crew survives, Miller may go to a dimension of literal damnation, but there is little doubt that he has saved his soul.
Peters is the third major character who suffers from Catholic Guilt in Event Horizon. She was called back onto active duty for the search-and-rescue mission, and had to leave her young, badly-crippled son behind on Earth with her husband.
It is clear that Peters feels she abandoned her child, and early in the film we see her watching home-video footage of the sick boy.
Once aboard Event Horizon, the ship manifests Peters’ son (though he is actually still alive, on Earth), and her feelings of guilt go into overdrive. She sees him, in particular, as sick and vulnerable.
Then, at the very moment Peters should be trying to escape the ship, she takes a wrong turn instead. She goes the wrong way…pursuing the phantasm of her boy instead of her own survival. It is as if she wants the boy to forgive her, to negate her feelings of guilt. Instead, he leads her to her death.
Peters’ fate is a demonstration of the fact that guilt -- while sometimes useful -- can also lead one astray, or down blind alleys.
Even a fourth character – a supporting one -- Justin also makes some key references to guilt in Event Horizon.
When he awakens after his journey to “the Other Place” (Hell…), Justin notes that it showed him “the dark place inside” himself, and that seems a veritable definition of how guilt feels.
“It shows you horrible things,” he adds, but importantly, all those horrible things are inside him, and that too defines guilt well: the internal memory of bad deeds committed.
In keeping with the overarching concept of guilt, Event Horizon is dominated by Catholic imagery and allusions. For example, the exterior of the malevolent spaceship -- when seen from precisely the right angle -- resembles a high-tech crucifix.
Worse, if inverted it could be interpreted as an upside-down crucifix, suggesting the Hellish nature of the thing. It is a place of sin and guilt made flesh.
At least one window at the fore of the ship, on the bridge, likewise resembles a crucifix.
In an unforgettable composition from the film’s opening act, a dead human figure floats weightlessly before such a window, his arms outstretched in a Christ-on-the-cross pose. He has been crucified for his sins, and left for dead.
Similarly, much of the interior of the haunted old ship deliberately reflects the Gothic architecture of European cathedrals, right down to the frequent appearance of arches.
The main hallway connecting forward life boat and rear propulsion section is but a series of ridged, pointed arches, for example.
Even the ship’s airlocks are labeled rather unconventionally with Medieval Roman numerals. Although invented, of course, in Ancient Rome, these numbers were also used extensively in the Middle Ages in a regnal fashion…to denote the reigns/identities of Popes, and national rulers.
And when Weir re-appears one last time for the film’s final sting, just look at his attire. He wears a space helmet that resembles something out of the Spanish Inquisition, the tribunal tasked with maintaining Catholic orthodoxy.
In popular culture, the Inquisition has come to symbolize intolerance or a capricious, arbitrary justice. In Event Horizon, the guilty Weir becomes the chief inquisitor of the ship itself -- the chief torturer – and so the helmet seems appropriate.
Further intimating Catholicism, the first message received from Event Horizon upon her return to our universe from Hell is spoken in Latin, like the liturgy of the Mass.
The words are: “liberate tutame ex infernis.”
The translation is literally “Save me from Hell.”
As I’ve written before, I believe that a movie reaches its apex of artistry when form and content intermingle meaningfully. In Event Horizon, the idea of Catholic guilt informs several characters, and the film’s singular, horrifying setting -- a haunted, Catholic spaceship, essentially -- visualizes their strife and turmoil, reflecting the nature of their conflict.
It is also significant that so many figures in the film lose their eyes -- or gouge them out -- from Weir and his wife to Justin and the original Event Horizon crew.
The idea seems to be that if you can cut out your eyes (the window to the soul?) you can't see your guilt anymore. You can't recognize it.
Of course, that isn't true. Guilt isn't about something external that you can look away from. It's an internal quality of the mind that is always there, even with your eyes shut, even without eyes at all.
There are those who will gaze at this film and see only the visual quotations, the many resonances of popular culture or the horror genre. They are present, to be certain.
However, Event Horizon travels some distance beyond mere homage to cogently express its riveting (and frequently grotesque…) tale of guilt and regret, damnation, and salvation.
The film serves as a brilliant "yang" to the "yin" of another 1997 genre film, Contact. The light, new age mysticism of that Jodie Foster movie contrasts very strongly with the heavy, almost dungeon-like Medieval exterior and interior architecture of Event Horizon.
Both films concern "portals" that open to other dimensions, and reveal something of human spirituality. Here, many of the discoveries are dark ones, but Miller's sacrifice, while grim, is a positive takeaway.
Hell is just a word, as Dr. Weir notes here, but Event Horizon visualizes the grim reality of that word in ways that are unforgettable, horrifying, and, finally, aesthetically coherent.
A reader, Chuck, writes: "I know you have been busy and, frankly, I was not sure if you still have time for “Ask JKM a Quest...