Event Horizon (review)

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In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream — Really

Event Horizon (starring Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, and Kathleen Quinlan) had such promise. Fifty years from now, an experimental spaceship called the Event Horizon drifts derelict in Neptune’s orbit, its test crew disappeared. A search-and-rescue mission with a band of potentially interesting characters is sent to find out what went wrong. But the film goes bad once the S&R team arrives at Neptune, degenerating into a schlocky, unnecessarily gory, boring horror flick.

One reason I was hopeful at first was that the film tries to get some of the science right. One spectacular shot early in the movie gives a beautiful sense of what being space is like (not that I’ve been there myself, alas): The “camera,” apparently “right side up,” shows us the inside of a space station orbiting Earth, where Dr. Weir (Sam Neill) is drinking his morning coffee, then cuts to the outside of the station looking in a window through which Weir appears “upside down.” There is, of course, no “up”and “down” in space (artificial gravity notwithstanding, which doesn’t seem possible [yet?] and is a minus in Event Horizon‘s scientific-accuracy column). There are some nice effects of liquids behaving as liquids actually do in zero gravity (they clump together in globs), and beautiful vistas of storms raging across Neptune’s surface. There is respect shown for the awesome g-forces encountered when traveling fast enough to get to Neptune in a matter of months (whether the film’s solution is any good, I’m not sure…).

However, as in almost every other science fiction movie I’ve ever seen (the notable exception being 2001), we are treated to the thrilling sounds of spaceship engines throbbing and thrumming in space. As any student of science should know, sound waves need something to travel through: air and water do nicely. Sound waves can’t travel in a vacuum. So in space, no one can hear you scream or rev your engines or shoot a gun or anything — I swear.

So why do movies persist in defying the laws of physics? Don’t the filmmakers know any better? (Maybe they don’t.) Don’t audiences know any better? (Maybe they don’t.) Is it to keep sound effects people employed? I’m not sure I know.

One thing I’m pretty convinced of, though, is that 50 or 100 years from now, when space travel is as ordinary as air travel, film fans will look back on today’s SF movies and laugh at our ignorance. All those big beautiful spaceships shooting all those reverberating laser bolts are gonna look really ridiculous to even the youngest child who’s taken a trip to the moon. They’ll look as silly and quaint as the folks in Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) walking around on the moon without spacesuits.

A last few observations on Event Horizon:

1. Laurence Fishburne was just great as Captain Miller of the rescue team, which was mixed racially and genderwise. As much as I appreciate the problems that women (being one myself) and minorities face in dealing with our white-guy world, I do get tired of seeing movies about people whining about how they can’t get a fair shake. I know prejudice exists and I know it’s horrible, but I much prefer to see what is unfortunately still mostly a fantasy: someone who isn’t white or male firmly in command, and groups of people who don’t all have the same ethnic background working well together. Just for a break from reality. After all, Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t accurately portray archeology, but it was so much more escapist than the real thing.

2. Two SF films this summer — Event Horizon and Contact — have independently shown us that the way to create a wormhole for interstellar travel is to spin up a three-ringed gyroscope. Coincidence? Did the same visual people work on both films? Is there some theoretical basis for this? Does anyone out there know?

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