"Event Horizon"

Abandon hope, all ye who go to see "Event Horizon."

Published September 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

A GOOD MOVIE TITLE will give you some hint of what genre you're getting yourself into. See a film called, say, "Spawn" -- or "Hellspawn" or "Demonspawn" or "Devilspawn" -- and you are not likely to be surprised by its quotient of fire and brimstone.

The new science-fiction/horror thriller "Event Horizon" has a title that instead suggests a quotient of Stephen Hawking -- whose bestselling introduction to quantum physics, "A Brief History of Time," is where the public is most likely to have encountered this term. As Hawking's readers know, the "event horizon" is the border of a black hole, the horizon of known (and knowable) space, "the boundary of the region of space-time from which it is not possible to escape." It's like a roach motel for reality: Light waves check in but they don't check out.

"Event Horizon" turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with quantum physics -- it's a high-concept "haunted house in space" drama dressed up in scanty shreds of physics jargon but mostly interested in ghoulishly empty eye sockets and rivers of bubbling blood. Trying to figure out just what went wrong in the creation of a movie as dreadful as this may ultimately be as futile as trying to ascertain what might lie on the "other side" of a black hole. Still, I went back to my copy of Hawking and found the sentence that, perhaps, caused a dim bulb to flash in the screenwriter's mind: "One could well say of the event horizon what the poet Dante said of the entrance to Hell: 'All hope abandon, ye who enter here.'" Aha! thinks the screenwriter: What if an event horizon actually was the entrance to hell?

And so our screenwriter, Philip Eisner, and director Paul Anderson ("Mortal Kombat") perform a kind of genre bait-and-switch: They begin with a feint toward science-fiction archetypes -- a spaceship named the Event Horizon that once disappeared at the edge of the solar system mysteriously returns, and a rescue mission must discover what happened to it -- but then lunge toward horror-movie stereotypes. The rescue-ship captain (Laurence Fishburne) just wants to get his crew (including Joely Richardson and Kathleen Quinlan) home safely; but Dr. Weir (Sam Neill), the brooding scientist who'd built the Event Horizon, has other plans.

Before long, we learn that the Event Horizon was part of a secret project to achieve faster-than-light travel by building an "artificial black hole" at the heart of the ship's engine and creating a "dimensional gateway" to Proxima Centauri. Whatever it might have found had it actually reached Proxima Centauri could only have been more interesting than what "Event Horizon" actually delivers in terms of muddled horror. As the rescue crew bumbles around the phantom ship, its terrors keep shifting in form: Sometimes, the ship itself seems to be malevolently alive and whispering sour nothings; sometimes it seems to be playing head games with the crew, summoning hallucinations of their psychic vulnerabilities ("It knows my fears! It knows my secrets!"); sometimes it seems to be a straightforward gateway to a literally hellish inferno. As Dr. Weir says, "There's a lot of things happening around here that I don't understand."

At the center of the ghost ship sits the "dimensional gateway" itself -- a giant orb of nested gyroscopes plated with metal studs, like big cosmic dog collars. (When the dog collars all line up, fasten your seat belt.) The gateway is meant to be the movie's central locus of horror, but it's too impersonal to be very spooky. As it struggles toward a finale, "Event Horizon" collapses into a messily edited mishmash of pumped-up sound (deep rumbles and honking trombones) and strobing explosions of light -- you might want to plug your ears and cover your eyes.

There ought to be room in Hollywood for some decent, low-key fun with the kind of B-grade science fiction that "Event Horizon" represents. But today's filmmakers can't seem to find a decent middle ground between pure self-referential irony (` la "Mars Attacks") and the kind of relentlessly grim self-importance that turns "Event Horizon" into such an ordeal.

"Event Horizon" invokes "2001: A Space Odyssey" more than once, not only in its plot about a ship with a mind of its own but also in its best action sequence, in which a spacesuit-less crew member is rescued from a decompressing airlock. But the heart of "2001's" achievement was the sense of wonder it evoked at the fine balancing-point between comedy and terror. Such complexity is nowhere on "Event Horizon's" horizon; it's as if any glint of subtlety has been swallowed by a black hole.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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