“I’ve been waiting to do a movie with Aliens in it since I was at school, since the first Alien movie came out, since I fell in love with Sigourney Weaver and since the Alien scared the hell out of me. I’ve been obsessed with Aliens for a while.”
Paul Anderson, Joblo, 2002.
Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997) has attained a sort of cult appeal since its release; not the laudatory reappraisial that gradually saw films like 2001 and Blade Runner overcome their initial middling reviews and become certified classics, nor the kind that catapulted The Rocky Horror Picture Show into the midnight movie pantheon, nor even the slow rehabilitation that Alien 3 seems to be undergoing, yet it’s critical consensus among horror and sci-fi fans has become somewhat respectable.
Much of Event Horizon’s appeal, even its most ardent fans will admit, lies in what it liberally borrows from other movies — the story cribs from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and its imagery and even some dialogue derive from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). There are entire shots lifted directly from Alien, The Shining, and Stargate. The film’s flashlights emulate the look of the Alien derelict’s laser ‘net’; the Gravity Drive even feels, not to its detriment, like Event Horizon’s very own Space Jockey chamber set-piece. Not to mention a variety of production similarities: the film’s cinematographer, Adrian Biddle, started out as a focus puller for Alien before serving as Aliens’ cinematographer after a recommendation from Ridley Scott, leading to his turn on Anderson’s film. Like Alien and Outland before it, there was also gender-swapping between a male to a female character: “I’ve always tried to put strong women in my movies,” Anderson told Collider in 2008. “Actually, in Event Horizon, Jolie Richardson’s character, I think, was originally written as a man and then we retooled that character so she could play it.” Alien and Alien 3 editor Terry Rawlings even contributed, providing the cut between Sam Neill’s character shaving and the window blinds snapping open at the beginning of the movie. Production designer Joseph Bennet referred to the film as “an Alien film without the Alien.”
When designing the Event Horizon ship itself, models designer David Sharpe explained that “What we did was to scan elements of Notre Dame Cathedral into the computer, so the thruster pods at the side were actually towers from Notre Dame … when you pull back, you see the crucifix hanging above Neptune.” Likewise, Alien conceptual artist Ron Cobb explained that “Ridley saw the [Nostromo] very much as a metaphor for a Gothic castle, or a WWII submarine.” Ridley himself commented that he had drawn the Nostromo’s rig with “the vague idea that it would resemble a floating inverted cathedral.” Event Horizon‘s filmmakers were not shy about the aesthetic similarities between their film and Scott’s: the DVD commentary features producer Jeremy Bolt observing his film’s ship and commenting, “It’s not completely pristine, it’s kinda like the ship in Alien,” with Anderson also admitting that “Yeah, we were obviously very influenced by the look of the Nostromo when it came to designing this, you know, like that grubby realistic view of the future.”
“If you’re going into outer space you’ve got to have a very specific, exciting design concept. You can’t be sub-standard Alien or sub-standard Blade Runner.”
~ Paul W.S. Anderson.
However, there was an effort on the part of the filmmakers to acknowledge Alien’s influence on their film but also to delineate the differences between them. Anderson instead stressed its relation to Tarkovsy’s Solaris. “I love movies like Solaris, the original Solaris,” he told Grantland in 2014, “the script clearly draws from [it]. Those kind of meditative European films that are unsettling, but don’t really play to a modern audience. By adding that kind of visceral thrill, that’s making it my own.” Anderson also spoke about Tarkovsky’s film with Starlog back in 1997, saying, “If you took Solaris and turned it into an American action movie, you may end up with Event Horizon. There are many similarities between these two films, but we’re not three and a half hours long and we have much better FX.” He was also eager to promote the film as an ode to Kubrick’s The Shining. “It’s like The Shining in space,” he is quoted in ‘The Complete Kubrick’. “But instead of the Overlook Hotel, we have the Event Horizon.”
Anderson also explained that his film’s threat was, unlike Alien’s, supernatural as well as psychological – the evil didn’t exist as a concrete physical entity, but rather emanated from the Gravity Drive to possess the ship. According to the director, Event Horizon’s shell was admittedly very Alien, but the engine was more akin to classic haunting movies. “For me, what makes the movie really original is that you’re expecting another monster movie,” Anderson told Starlog in 1997, “another variation of Alien, and that’s not what you get at all. Instead, you get a very scary psychological horror movie.”
The film’s original screenwriter, Philip Eisner, also intended for the film to be a homage to older haunted house films, rather than a direct derivation of Alien. “When I came up with the idea for Event Horizon, I was inspired by The Haunting, The Shining, and The Abyss,” Eisner is quoted in ‘Cool Million: How to Become a Million-Dollar Screenwriter’. Inspired by Michael Biehn’s turn as Lt. Coffey in Cameron’s claustrophobc underwater thriller, Eisner decided to transpose the action into the orbit of Neptune. Biehn’s character also informed Dr. Weir’s steady corruption. “I was fascinated by a character who was going insane in a hostile environment. And he wasn’t evil, he was a good guy.”
Event Horizon is a film that frightened me when I first saw it in the late nineties but whose effect has diminished with every rewatch – what is most frustrating about it is a frustration that I share with Anderson himself – they both have potential that is quickly squandered: Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995) is still a great piece of work: not that the videogame called for an adaptation that was anything greater than Bloodsport (1988) or the like, but he managed to nail the Kung Fu cheese of the source material without almost capsizing the whole project as he would with the many Resident Evil films. There isn’t much else in Anderson’s body of work to cherish, but despite my antipathy for, say, Alien vs. Predator, that film still manages to showcase Anderson’s knack for a great shot — the opening moments, featuring a satellite that could be mistaken for the silhoutte of an Alien Queen, impresses me every time I see it.
Likewise, Event Horizon has great leads, great production design, a surprising fidelity to model work despite some shoddy (by today’s standards) CG, but an at-times utterly mismatched score or tone, telegraphed jump scares and an inability to transform its influences into something greater (for example, Alien itself borrowed much of its plot and set-pieces from older B-movies, as did genre classics like Star Wars.) While the supporting cast is good, Richard T. Jones’ character merely exists to yelp comically and he Wayanses his performance during the tenser moments of the film, punctuating the third act’s doomy atmosphere with his propelling through space and yelling, “I’m coming back, motherfuckas!” (should an audience really be compelled to laugh during a horror flick’s third act?) His reappearance at the Event Horizon and interruption of Dr Weir seems spliced in from a spoof and the tonal mismatch almost tanks the scene.
The film was heavily cut by the studio prior to its release and some suggest that restoring deleted footage of gory scenes would make for a better film, but while I’m as interested in seeing that as I am in Hellraiser II‘s once-lost surgery scenes (read: very), I doubt there was much depth lopped off. Still, the movie remains a point of interest and entertainment for many sci-fi and horror fans who acknowledge its shortcomings but appreciate Anderson’s ability to wring out a good image and the first act’s atmosphere, as well as the strong leads in Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill (both are, frankly, great, as well as great fun.)
After Event Horizon’s cult success and Anderson’s reputation with genre work was cemented, he was given what one interviewer called “the poisoned chalice” that was 2003’s Alien vs Predator. Anderson approached the project with much enthusiasm and a bag of ideas, pitching the plot to Fox executives and securing wrting and directing duties. “It’s the coolest cinema franchise out there,” Anderson told Joblo.com in 2002, “and Predator is the baddest hunter in the universe. So the idea of combining the two of them is just phenomenal! It will be a stand-alone franchise. It will not be a continuation of the Alien franchise.”
Anderson’s AVP was followed in 2007 by Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, directed by the Brothers Strause. “That movie showed what a good job we’d done with the first movie,” Anderson told Grantland in 2014. “It’s like, OK, you can pick apart my AVP, but take a look at that one and then maybe watch my movie again and you’ll have a new appreciation for it.”