Event Horizon: the ubiquitous cigarette

One of the most recurrent motives throughout ‘Event Horizon’ is that of cigarettes and smoking. Set in a distant future world with heightened technology, nevertheless the cigarette still appeals as a basic human necessity, grounding all the developments of technology in a firmly human mentality, that of needing ‘a quick gasper.’ After Smitty successfully navigates the ship through turbulence to bring the Lewis & Clark opposite the Event Horizon, Fishburne’s character tells him “If you’ve got ‘em, smoke ‘em,’ at which point he duly does so.

The use of the cigarette has several functions. Apart from allowing the camera to track round the various crewmembers as it follows the passage of the cigarette from hand to hand, it contrasts feelings of ease with those of tension. DJ casually removes his cigarette to inject Dr. Weir in preparation for the gravity-tank, which contrasts with Weir’s apprehension as he admits suffering from claustrophobia. Smitty smokes as a relaxation after fighting to bring the ship through turbulence, but his smoking also betrays his nervousness on hearing the real reason for the mission in Weir’s briefing. It also forms part of DJ’s own character, combining with his reticence and underlying tension, to portray an individual on the verge of a breakdown.

The secondary function of the cigarette is to create contrast with the surrounding advanced technological environment. In an age when interstellar space-travel has apparently led to the construction of vast ships, gateway-opening gravity propulsion systems (the language Weir uses to describe its function is dazzling, impenetrable and certainly confusing), with advanced computer software and medical facilities, people still continue to rely on old-fashioned nicotine in paper wrappings. The constant visual reference to cigarettes grounds the almost bewildering world of technology in a tangible plane, to which most viewers will relate. The fragility of the rolled cigarette clashes with the heavily metallicised world in which the crew are accustomed to living and working, emphasized by a shot of the comparative sizes of the rescue vessel, tenuously clasping onto the ‘Event Horizon’ itself, which dwarfs her completely.

There’s a wonderful shot in Aliens, where the camera tracks up an elegant hand holding a cigarette: subsequently revealed to be Ripley’s, it looks rather like the skeletal hand of one of the alien monsters themselves – a brief but neat ambiguity.

In space, no-one can hear you smoke.

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

Event Horizon: combining genres

One of the great strengths of Event Horizon is that it works to combine two separate genres, science-fiction and horror.

Of course, the Alien films also effect some combination of the two, although in this case it is the stalker-type film in the manner of Jaws and the fear induced by a remorseless killer – the same fear so effectively worked on in Westworld and later mimicked in Terminator.

In Event Horizon, the horror element is derived from the paranoia experienced from within the crew themselves, which they have brought with them. It is much more of a psychologically-based horror – the fear within.

It might be argued that, from a certain point of view, the genres of horror and science-fiction are related. The polarized stances of writers Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke are illustrative of this: Clarke’s writing believes that technological advancement will save mankind, Bradbury that it will be its ultimate destruction, and horror and catastrophe stalk the latter’s pages. Both horror and science-fiction concern the exploration of the unknown, the reactions of human beings to adversity, to situations reaching far beyond the areas of ordinary experience. Each genre can use the surprise factor, the unexpected, as a device to propel the narrative forward, and both place individuals in situations and predicaments outside the boundaries of everyday life.

The important difference between them can be summarized simply by the idea of ‘internal versus external experience.’ Science fiction, by definition, concerns situations that are conjectural, that have yet to exist: it is a genre that projects forward, to explore potential advances in society, technology and in human evolution (apart, that is, from the tired and unreliable technology of Star Wars mentioned previously). Thus, the concerns of science fiction are often necessarily external concerns, where mankind reacts to elements in an external world which differs from our own. Much of the fascination with this sort of narrative is as much to do with the extrapolation, by the author or director, of how technology or humanity – or even both – will evolve, as it is with the unfolding plot.

The primary concern of the genre of horror, however, is with an internal universe, with the dark elements that like with mankind, within the soul or the mind. The phobias that afflict everyone to a greater or lesser extent are internally created: though they may be triggered by external factors, such as spiders or, in the case of Event Horizon, by stasis tanks, it is the manner in which these elements work upon the internal landscape of the human soul that horror seeks to explore.

Event Horizon therefore represents something of a crossover between these two styles, combining aspects of both and allowing each to inform and work upon the other. The important elements of science-fiction are present – technology in new forms, humanity in a new environment – but inextricably woven into the fabric of the narrative are elements also of horror – a menacing evil, the internal fears and secrets of the various crewmembers.

Indeed, in this film, the one has directly contributed to the creation of the other: it is the manufacture of the gravity-drive mechanism that causes the horror to come forth. Hence the significance of the fact that the drive is often referred to as a gateway. The evolution of a particular technological achievement has led to the evil coming into this dimension, through the opening caused by the functioning of the gravity-drive.

The idea of humans tampering with things beyond their control and thereby unleashing malevolent force is a crucial part of horror, reaching back as far as Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and (for science-fiction), the original Godzilla where the monster is created by nuclear weapons, and also now of science fiction. The various novels concerning the effects of hallucinatory drugs, by writers such as Jeff Noon, Philip K Dick or William Burroughs, heighten what it means to experiment with drugs and the sense that it is always guesswork, and always involves an element of risk caused by a lack of knowledge or understanding, or of certainty. Dr. Weir begins as a scientist, someone whose vocation concerns experimentation to create empirical fact, and finishes as a personification of evil – a twist that neatly reflects the concerns of the film itself.

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

Infinite Space, Infinite Terror: a contradiction

The catchphrase used in Event Horizon‘s marketing, the title of this section, is remarkable for the fact that the film itself endeavours to run contrary to this idea.

Normally, most science fiction highlights the intense isolation of being lost in the limitless reaches of space, by means of a space-walk episode to re-enforce the scale of endless emptiness dwarfing the human figure, or panning back from an apparently large spaceship to reveal the vast depths of space surrounding it.

Much of the intensity of the first third of the film is generated by the fact that it is not the boundless reaches of space which inspires fear, but the claustrophobia of enclosed areas. Although the film contains numerous instances of both devices – pulling back from Weir’s cabin to emphasise the epic scale of the space-station at the beginning, or moving around the outside of the ‘Event Horizon’ itself before the two ships dock – there is primarily an emphasis on claustrophobia, on characters caught in oppressively confined spaces. The same sequence which pulls back from Weir’s cabin to illustrate the overwhelming size of the space station also re-enforces the small size of the cabin he occupies.

The gravity tanks are also extremely constricting, triggering Weir’s first hallucination aboard the ‘Lewis & Clark.’ When he first enters the stasis tank, Weir reveals that he suffers from acute claustrophobia, a condition which induces the episode that follows. His fear is brought about not by being dwarfed by boundless surroundings, but by being confined.

As the camera tracks around the empty tunnels of the ‘Event Horizon’ when first entry into the ship is made, again it is the oppressive atmosphere of enclosure which pervades the film, enhanced by the effect of echoing corridors. Blobs of escaped coolant fluid and forgotten tools float haphazardly around these empty tunnels, illustrating the lack of human control exerted in this environment.

The terror of the film, the second element referred to by the film’s catchphrase, whilst in part emanating from the surroundingly desolate universe (the crew make repeated references to how far from home they are, interrupting their leave in order to undertake the rescue mission, of which details are initially withheld from them) is also brought with the crew themselves – possibly brought aboard directly in the soul of Dr. Weir himself. As Conrad referred to it at the end of Heart of Darkness, the greatest horror lies not without the human mind, but within it. The evil brought back into our own dimension by the creation of the gravity-drive feeds upon the secrets and paranoid fears which each crewmember carries within themselves. When this element really begins to dominate in the latter part of the film, the narrative moves from its science fiction concerns to the genre of horror, effortlessly and efficiently blending the two.

Next week: more on the combination of genres.

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

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.