Sometimes we’re not ready. Sometimes it takes a while for audiences to connect with the material. Sometimes we just get it dead wrong.
One of the benefits of time is that it offers us perspective and distance. It’s not uncommon for a movie to come out, be critically panned, flop at the box office, and generally be written off, only for it to undergo a reappraisal some years later. Blade Runner is a prime example. Now we look at it as an enduring sci-fi classic, but when it came out, it got no love. It’s also far from the only example. The Shining, It’s a Wonderful Life, even The Wizard of Oz weren’t successes right away.
There are other examples of movies that died on the vine theatrically, but that are now widely revered. Such is the case with Event Horizon.
Okay, maybe it’s not in quite the same category as those aforementioned titles. It’s a movie that, when it was released in 1997, was met with little enthusiasm at the multiplex and even less acclaim from reviewers. However, it’s also one that’s undergone a critical and popular renaissance and become a cult favorite. This is a movie that, when you mention it now, it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “Event Horizon? Yeah, that movie rules.”
With that in mind, let’s take a few minutes and dig into why Event Horizon does, in fact, rule before we figure out what went wrong.
Why Paul W.S. Anderson’s Movie Deserved Better
In the distant but not-too-distant future of 2047, a spaceship and her crew are sent on a rescue mission to retrieve another ship called the Event Horizon. The Event Horizon was thought to have been destroyed seven years earlier. The reality is that the craft was on a secret mission to test faster-than-light travel and in the process of doing so disappeared into a black hole.Now it’s back and as the rescue crew learns, there was much more to the original mission. Oh and it brought something nefarious back with it.
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson—pre-adding the W.S. to his name and hot off of Mortal Kombat—Event Horizon initially looks like another Alien knock off. Like many sci-fi movies, it certainly owes a great deal to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic, especially tonally, aesthetically, and from a set design perspective. But as it goes, Even Horizon develops and evolves beyond those early imitations.
What begins as a relatively standard, straightforward sci-fi tale quickly develops into a deep-space nightmare hellscape. One that mixes influences from various cinematic genres, but also pulls from H.P. Lovecraft, Hieronymus Bosch, and Dante, among other literary and artistic inspirations.
There’s a heavy classical gothic bend to many elements of Event Horizon, especially the look. The story may take place in the future, millions of miles from Earth, and on spaceships; but the spaceships are constructed in a way that resembles haunted medieval castles.
Exterior shots are full of fog and lightning. The secret engine that folds space looks like an ancient monstrosity discovered in a secret tomb, not found in deep space. Even the story itself is very similar to the literary and film trope of someone dying. People cross over to the other side and come back to life only to bring dark, sinister forces back when they return.
When the ship returns from the other side, the Event Horizon functions like a living creature, like a body. These humans aboard are invaders, a virus. The host does what it can to purge and cleanse itself, picking off the crew one by one.
The cast being picked off is a great one. They’re led by Sam Neill as the scientist who designed the experimental drive, Laurence Fishburne as the captain of the ill-fated rescue ship, and rounded out by Kathleen Quinlan, Richard T. Jones, Jason Isaac, and Sean Pertwee.
As the mystery of where the ship went unravels, the crew finds themselves in deeper and deeper shit. Anderson and the script from Phillip Eisner take every opportunity to crank up the already ample tension. They add a ticking clock, regularly introduce new threats, and unravel the collective psyche of the crew by picking at their individual fears and traumas.
When the answer of where the Event Horizon went is revealed, it’s Hell. The ship went to Hell. Now it’s back and angry, and the film morphs into a twisted vision that’s reminiscent of Hellraiser in space. The crew experiences hallucinations and horrific visions, bodies emerge from flaming pools. They see loved ones ravaged by disease, ghosts from their past appear to remind them of every terrible thing they’ve ever done. Event Horizon becomes an escalating spiral of the worst possible dreams.
Why Event Horizon Was Unfairly Overlooked
All that accompanying gore in Even Horizon took many people aback, especially executives at Paramount Pictures. Often sadistic and sexual, it calls to mind Clive Barker and H.R. Giger. If the suits expected a haunted-house-in-space movie, they got something much, much more extreme. There’s cannibalism, people flayed in graphic fashion, rape, and brutal darkness of all stripes. People reportedly fainted during Event Horizon’s initial test screening.
It’s easy to imagine why the studio wasn’t super jazzed on what they saw during the initial screening of Anderson’s 130-minute first cut. The director was coming off the 1995 success of his Mortal Kombat adaptation, and the studio gave him a lot of leeway. They did not, however, expect him to deliver what he did. Signs on their subsequent interference can be seen many places along the line.
The studio pushed for a release in August of 1997, which meant Anderson and company only had a few weeks to assemble that first cut. Even then, they showed it with key scenes missing and special effects left unfinished.
After laying eyes on it for the first time, executives demanded the movie be cut down drastically. The Event Horizon released into theaters runs about 95 minutes. An editor was brought in and removed much of the gore—though it’s still plenty bloody—and even more of the sex.
Unfortunately, this also means a number of scenes meant to build character and develop storylines also landed on the editing room floor. In many situations where we glimpse into a character’s past, it’s plain to see there was originally much more detail and depth that would round them out.
Overall, the whole film plays as rushed because of studio interference and feels incomplete in places. For a time, there was talk of an Event Horizon director’s cut, but much of the excised footage has been lost, at least in part due to improper storage.
Upon release, Event Horizon performed poorly with both audiences and critics. With a $60 million budget, it opened to a $9 million debut weekend and went on to make $26 million in theaters. Critics at the time didn’t treat it much better, calling it derivative and forgettable. It currently has a 27% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, though it does have its defenders.
As is so often the case in these situations, Event Horizon found a fanbase on home video. Following movies like The Thing before and Dredd years later, its hard-R sensibility, gloominess, and general nasty streak struck a chord after its initial run. Fans found it and assessed it for themselves, and it’s since carved out a modest niche for itself.
While it hasn’t been recognized as a classic on the scale of some of the movies we’ve mentioned, Event Horizon left a legacy. Paul W.S. Anderson has gone on to make a ton of movies, most notably the Resident Evil franchise. The film talks about folding space, Einstein-Rosen bridges, wormholes, and the like, things which have become frequent topics in modern sci-fi—coming up in everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Rick and Morty. Sam Neill even uses the folding-paper-and-poking-a-hole-in-it method to explain this version of space travel, a trick employed by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar years later.
There’s even an Event Horizon series in the works and talk of a movie remake. Amazon is working with Paramount TV to develop an episodic version of the story. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, Godzilla vs. Kong) is attached to direct.
Event Horizon has flaws, for sure. The studio interference is obvious—the final act was reportedly tinkered with multiple times and there’s so much missing we have to wonder what could have been. It was always going to B-movie, mixing throwback sci-fi with exploitation horror, gore, and sex, but a B-movie with a budget.
But even with problems, compromised vision, and missing chunks, Event Horizon remains a fun, tense, bloody, thrilling time. It’s scary as hell, constructed with a cool gothic eye, and is a blast that deserves its recent reassessment.