Event Horizon and Pandorum: Two Tales of Cosmic Terror

It’s hard to believe that Paul W.S. Anderson, the schlockmeister behind Death Race, Pompeii, and the entire Resident Evil series, also directed Event Horizon. It’s difficult because Event Horizon is so much smarter than those other movies. I’m not trying to say that Anderson is a stupid person, just that some of his movies are kind of dumb. Event Horizon, however, is not one of those movies.

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The easiest way of describing Event Horizon is that it’s basically Alien meets The Shining. The film takes place in 2047 and follows the crew of the Lewis and Clark, a rescue vessel on a top-secret mission, led by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne). The mission is so top-secret that the crew doesn’t even know exactly what it is until they have almost reached their destination. A spoiler alert is in effect from here on.

When they have been awoken from their stasis pods, they are brought up to speed by Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), a guest on their ship. He explains to them that they are there to investigate a distress signal sent from a ship called the Event Horizon, which disappeared several years earlier. He also tells them that the Event Horizon was built to test a new experimental gravity drive he designed. The drive generates an artificial black hole in order to bridge two points in spacetime, which vastly reduces travel time over great astronomical distances.

Things start to go wrong almost as soon as the crew of the Lewis and Clark crosses over to the Event Horizon. They find mutilated bodies and crew members start to experience vivid hallucinations connected to deeply personal events from their lives. Captain Miller is haunted by a crewman he once failed to save, Weir sees images of his dead wife with bloody eyes (she is later revealed to have committed suicide), and another crewmember is hounded by the sight of her disabled son with his legs covered with maggot-infested wounds.

The crew discovers the video log from the crew of the Event Horizon, the last entry of which shows them going completely insane and violently murdering each other in a sadomasochistic orgy. Yeesh. Some of the gore scenes in this film push the limits of good taste, not to mention strain the boundaries of an R rating. Anderson’s Resident Evil movies have their share of gore, but the violence in Event Horizon makes the Resident Evil series look like Disney flicks. The initial cut of the movie was so gruesome that the studio forced Anderson to tone it down, and the thought that there was even more horrific footage that wasn’t included in the movie is chilling.

As it turns out, something went terribly wrong (surprise!) with Dr. Weir’s experimental gravity drive, and Captain Miller and Dr. Weir theorize that the ship opened a portal into a dimension outside of the known universe, which is not stated specifically to have been hell, but it’s strongly implied. After its return from wherever it went, the Event Horizon itself became a sentient being, and now torments its occupants and tries to lure them back to hell. The ship itself is evil! And while Dr. Weir later becomes possessed by the evil that controls the ship, the ship itself is the true villain. That’s quite similar to The Shining, where the Overlook Hotel is itself evil, and possesses the weak-willed to do its terrible bidding (or at least that’s my interpretation of it).

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I like this movie a lot. Its horrific violence and grotesque imagery make it a film that is not for everybody, but it’s absolutely chilling and the ideas behind it are much more interesting than anything in Anderson’s other films. It benefits from solid lead performances from Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, as well as strong supporting work from Jason Isaacs and Joely Richardson.

The special effects are also quite good. The movie came out in 1997 but watching it nearly 20 years later it’s easy to forget that this is a movie that is almost two decades old. The space ships in the film aren’t shiny and new-looking, like cinematic spacecraft tend to be. They look grungy and lived-in. Event Horizon is an incredibly atmospheric film, and the down-to-earth designs of the interiors of the spacecraft go a long way toward making the outlandish story believable.

Although it performed poorly at the box office and was met with generally negative reviews upon its initial release, the film has amassed a cult following. The look of the film also heavily influenced the Dead Space series of video games, in which the lived-in spaceships and overwhelming sense of cosmic doom are very much intact.

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Speaking of cosmic doom, in 2009 a film called Pandorum was released. The film stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster and is so stylistically similar to Event Horizon that it’s fun to think of the two films as taking place in the same universe. As far as I know there is no big fan theory connecting these movies, but it isn’t difficult to imagine. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Paul W.S. Anderson was one of the producers of Pandorum.

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Pandorum is set hundreds of years in the future, when Earth’s population has grown out of control. In order to save themselves, mankind builds a massive spaceship called Elysium and fills it with 60,000 people, then sends it into space on a 123-year mission to an Earth-like planet called Tanis. The setup is not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, but Pandorum is less focused on family dynamics and more focused on white-knuckle terror.

At some point in the Elysium’s mission, crewmembers named Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) awaken from an extended period of hypersleep. Due to being improperly awakened from their hibernation, they are both suffering from amnesia and don’t know what the status is of the ship or the mission. Bower ventures out into the bowels of the ship while Payton stays behind to monitor the situation. Bower eventually finds a few survivors, as well as terrifying monsters.

There are some great plot twists in this movie. More spoilers lie ahead. It is assumed at the beginning of the film that the ship is adrift in deep space, but it turns out that the ship actually landed in the ocean of Tanis after 123 years as planned, and that the ship is in year 923 of its mission, having spent the last 800 years underwater. Trippy! There’s also a Fight Club-esque “Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are the same person” twist, as well as a very cool twist involving the film’s monsters.

The monsters in this movie scare the shit out of me. They frighten me so badly I don’t want to even look at the damn things. Pure nightmare fuel. Bower and his compatriots assume that the creatures are passengers of the ship who have mutated, but this is only partly true. They turn out to be the descendants of some of the ship’s passengers who were awakened hundreds of years ago, and have since evolved to adapt to the dark environs of the ship, becoming cannibalistic and tribal in the process. Badass!

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Pandorum and Event Horizon are smart, trippy, gory sci-fi. The spaceships in both movies look grungy and worn instead of sleek and shiny, and the movies conjure some memorably horrific imagery. Both contain brutal gore, solid acting and trippy plot twists. They make for a great Halloween double feature, although you might want a shower afterwards.

Happy Halloween!

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