Reading ‘Event Horizon:’ an introduction

Event Horizon
Event Horizon (1997)

Released in 1997, Event Horizon represents a collision of genres derived from other film styles: from science fiction, horror, the action movie and war films. The otherwise predictable story – a rescue mission ship sent to recover a deep-space exploration vehicle that has reappeared after mysteriously disappearing seven years previously, and the anticipation of the various horrors that the crew will doubtless encounter aboard the stricken craft – is rescued from tired repetition precisely because it combines these genres: elements from each blending into a more engaging film.

Most science fiction films require little cerebral engagement from the audience, except perhaps an ability to marvel at the conjectured technological innovations, or at the film’s special effects. The better films, as indeed arguably all good science fiction should, set up their own world, along with its machinery, its social hierarchies and its technological evolutions, its own races and their cultures, and present it as a given, entirely credible, premise from which the film will depart. In fact, the most successful science fiction perhaps does not even attempt to amaze the viewer, or the reader, with its dazzling array of inventions: it simply gets to grips with the plot immediately, and by and large will ignore its own technology, or at least take it for granted. This makes the audience do so as well – only gradually as the film unfolds is the scale of the technological universe presented, unfolding through the demands of the narrative, and not governing it.

In this manner, the viewer accepts without consideration the premise set up by the narrative, and only marvels at it afterwards. Of course, some films demand the opposite reaction: the tired and frustratingly incompetent technology that is a feature of the first Star Wars trilogy, or the murky android flesh parlours in Blade Runner, complete with almost ever-present rain-soaked streets and citizens alike.

The structure of Event Horizon is also not presented as a straightforward sequence of events: a mysterious beginning, unexplained flashbacks, ambiguous characters towards whom the viewer’s attitudes will slowly change over the course of the film; all endeavour to subvert a traditional, organic sense of narrative progression. Total Recall also plays with the audience perception of characters and events successfully; perhaps because it is based, like Blade Runner, on a short story by the master of science-fiction, Philip K. Dick. Some elements of Event Horizon are clearly derived from the Alien series, inaugurated by Ridley Scott, later also the director of Blade Runner. The camaraderie shared by the crew of the ‘Lewis & Clark’ owes a great deal to the character-bonding in war films, while the tense build-up of expectation leading towards an unknown denouement is inherited from the horror genre.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring various themes and devices employed in the film. Next week: ‘Infinite Space, Infinite Terror: a contradiction.’

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his Music Matters blog.

Under My Skin: defining the human in science fiction.

Lying at the heart of most science fiction, it seems to me, is the attempt to define what it means to be human. Authors from Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson to modern darlings like Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville are, beneath their paranoid technicolour or cyber- or gothic steam-punk surfaces, offering an exploration of the human condition.

A recent episode of cult television series Dr Who caused viewers to complain to the BBC about the racy scenes between the Doctor and Amy Pond, admitting a previously, if not unadmitted then unexplored, sexuality into the canon: resisting the lavish advances of a mini-skirted Pond, the Doctor declares ‘I’m nine-hundred and seven years old: think what that means!’ Even here, science fiction is exploring the difference between Time Lord and human and the implications for their relationship.

As Dr. Tyrell, head of the replicant-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, remarks; ‘More human than human is our motto.’ The famous speech Batty gives at the end of the film is all the more poignant because, like all the replicants, he is aspiring to be human and his experiences, whilst short-lived, define his humanity: ‘I’ve seen things…attack ships in flames off the shores of Orion.’ There’s poetry here, as well as a lament for the loss of his all-too-brief glimpse into the human condition.

Ray Bradbury’s haunting short story ‘The Pedestrian’ from his brilliant 1982 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun, is set in 2053: the narrator, Mr. Mead is the only one walking the streets at night, everyone else is indoors being indoctrinated by their television sets. Arrested by a robotic police car, he is driven past a house – the only house with all its lights on. ‘That’s my house,’ he declares. The computer-controlled car cannot understand what he is doing: ‘Just walking, Mr Mead ?’ it asks him.

In the Matrix-indebted Equilibrium, the suppression of human emotion using controlled drugs in pursuit of a society without crime and violence results in a society stripped of its humanity.

As the hybrid being that is Lieutenant Ripley remarks in Alien Resurrection, as the good ship Betty heads towards the Earth: ‘I’m a stranger here myself,’ articulating a sense of isolation that we have all perhaps felt to some extent at some point in our lives.

It’s what Batty and the other doomed replicants are fighting for, what the robotic police-car can never understand, and what science fiction, in its myriad incarnations is expressing: it’s what makes us human that counts.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.