Screening Log #59: Event Horizon (1997)

Written by Philip Eisner
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, and Kathleen Quinlan




To my mind there is something problematic in the general conception of Hell as an afterlife destination. To conceive of Hell, conceptually speaking, as merely a locus, a place at which one arrives, excludes one half of the equation. The eternal suffering promised to one who ends up in Hell can’t be exclusively generated by external stimuli; for Hell to truly be Hell, the suffering must be equally caused by both external and internal factors – i.e., the brimstone and pitchforks, etc., must torment the mental and emotional equally as much as the physical. The knowledge that damnation is entirely the consequence of personal choices, and the guilt/shame/remorse that flows from this, must be merely the first stage of torment. Hell must be more than a place, more than a word or description; Hell must be a total state.

It seems strange, I suppose, to ponder on the nature of hell in a blog post dedicated to a science fiction horror film from the 90s, but it’s not entirely tangential. Paul W.S. Anderson’s film, Event Horizon, borrows parts from Alien – and subsequently the whole haunted-house genre – Stephen Hawking, and the Old Testament to construct a morality tale about the sanctity of the natural physical world and its rules… in a way. The space ship Event Horizon went missing seven years previous to the action of the film. The ship has now re-emerged near Neptune and a rescue vessel, The Lewis and Clarke, piloted by Captain Miller, Laurence Fishburne, has been dispatched to investigate the ship and recover its crew. The Lewis and Clarke’s crew are joined by the scientist Dr. William Weir, Sam Neill, who was responsible for the creation of the Event Horizon’s new space and time bending gravity drive, which was supposed to allow to vessel to travel to Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to our own sun.

The crew of the Lewis and Clarke awake from stasis and find the Event Horizon to be eerily unpopulated, its distress call a dissonant collage of noise – including a strange Latin message from its captain – and its crew mutilated. Shortly following this, each of the members who have boarded the Event Horizon is visited upon by strange hallucinations of an intimately personal nature. One crew member, upon inspecting the “dormant” gravity drive core is pulled through it, emerging catatonic. Visions and whispers accost the crew as they set about determining what happened to the Event Horizon, why its crew were killed, and where it has been for the last seven years.

The gravity drive, as it turns out, theoretically operates by collapsing the space between the points of origin and destination, such that they are contiguous; by passing through the space between space, the ship was – theoretically – able to travel beyond the speed of light. However, if H.P. Lovecraft has taught us anything, it’s that the space outside of space is rarely ever amendable to our reality. The comatose crew member wakes, speaking of “the darkness inside of [him]” that he was shown when he passed through the black hole at the centre of the gravity drive – the energy source which allows the ship to operate as it does, and promptly locks himself inside an airlock before coming to his seeming senses and procuring catastrophic injury in the depressurization process before being saved by Miller. Other crew members are killed as a result of either their own hallucinations or the actions of a crew member seemingly possessed by an other. The hallucinations are of such a personal nature, things impossible for anyone else to know, that Miller begins speculating about where the drive may have taken the Event Horizon, and where it may have spent the last seven years: Hell.

Here, the production design for the Event Horizon itself becomes intrinsically important to the film. Contrary to the interior aesthetic established for space-faring vessels in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and tweaked for industrial horror by Alien, exhibited by the Lewis and Clarke – prior to its unceremoniously being exploded by a possessed crew member – the Event Horizon’s interiors are dark, menacing, and almost compulsively utilize concentric circles as a design principle. The gravity drive itself consists of interlocking magnetic gears and lights that seem to form, if I am counting correctly, a series of nine concentric circles, in a slyly subtle nod toward Dante, I presume. Blades and spike protrude from walls, rendering even the most benign interior space threatening and malicious. There is a perfect symmetry to this reconfiguring of the physical space of the ship, as the actual physical interior of the ship is utilized to intimidate and torment – in some cases kill – the crew of the Lewis and Clarke in the very same manner that their own internal space, their thoughts and emotions, are similarly turned against them.

This engagement with both internal and external, both mental/emotional and physical, spaces is signified by the film’s very first image. The film begins by showing an image of a black hole in space, the negation of light surrounded by an iris of coloured space gas. The connection to the structure of the eye is immediately obtainable; the black hole and the eye each function as a portal through which the external and physical is internalized into thought and emotion. Not coincidentally, the doors on the Event Horizon are all circular portals as well, cementing the ships as the mediating space between the physical world of the characters and their own personal and internal encounters with Hell.

The film ends with an escape and a second immersion into stasis for several characters. Upon awakening, one dreams that she is rescued, but that her rescuer is one of the possessed crew members who she had thought stranded on the Event Horizon. She wakes from this dream as the camera pans back to show the room’s circular portal close on the scene. Again, the internal and external, and, perhaps, cyclical, nature of hell are asserted, even in apparent rescue; if there is a Hell, it is not merely a place that you can leave, it is, as Event Horizon alludes, a darkness eternally pregnant in each of us.


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