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Event Horizon Starring: Sam Neill, Lawrence Fishburne, Joely Richardson. Director: Paul W. S. Anderson. Screenwriter: Philip Eisner.
Paul “Wide-Screen” Anderson (I have no idea what the actual W.S. stands for, but I always think “Wide Screen” when I see it) is a really great film-maker.   He knows how to frame a shot, how to track the camera, how to arrange the people and things in a scene within the shot for maximum effectiveness, and he knows how to build a sequence of shots so that tension mounts into a payoff.   Even within the shots, there are little bits of business that show he really wants to stimulate the ol' optic nerve.

As a film-maker, he’s really very, very good.   As a story-teller, on the other hand, he stinks on ice. 

Our first bit of evidence, or in layman’s terms, film, is one of his early efforts, Event Horizon, which Mr. Anderson directed (in wide-screen) but did not, according to the credits, write.   One Philip Eisner is responsible for our screenplay, though I’ve heard rumors that Andrew Kevin Walker, author of Seven, did some uncredited work on the script. 

And it might have been a good script, no matter who wrote it, but Mr. Anderson’s way with a camera got in the way of the story. 

If you haven’t seen the film, Sam Neill stars as a scientist who developed a faster-than-light drive on a ship, the “Event Horizon,” which disappeared on its maiden voyage seven years ago; it’s just reappeared out by Neptune, and Lawrence Fishburne and his crew are taking Neill out to take a look at it to find out where it’s been and what happened to the crew.  Once they get there, it’s not really clear what happened to the ship (aside from a couple of corpses, it’s empty and ship’s log is fragmented) but it seems to have gone into Hell itself, where it picked up either a bunch of sour ghosts or a very bad personality of its own.  Like I said, it’s not clear. 

And you can watch this film and see exactly how its murkiness came about.  In one scene, Lawrence Fishburne is confronted by the ghost of a man he had to abandon in a fire; we cut away before this is resolved, to a long pan of the outside of the ship, then cut back inside to Mr. Fishburne discussing this with another crew member.  So, uh, what was the point of that pan on the outside?   I can’t see it myself.  The only thing I can think of is (possibly) Mr. Anderson saying, “Cutting from one scene to an aftermath directly related to it—that’s dull!   I need to remind everyone that all the people are in space, and here’s a good time to do that!”   Of course, I don’t know that Mr. Anderson said that.   I have no idea what he was thinking at the time.  I’m just taking a wild guess.

Since this film isn’t an Anderson script, it’s not all that useful for getting the full flavor of Paul W. S. Anderson’s abilities with celluloid (we’ll leave that to our co-feature this month, Resident Evil).  But it does have some of his hallmarks.  As noted at the beginning, sequences are well-framed and edited and shot with a great deal of kinetic energy.  There’s one sequence where a crewman, driven mad by the “Event Horizon,” is going to throw himself out the airlock; this sequence, with its build up not only of the crewman’s dementia but the attempts to rescue him, works really well as pure cinema (and also works in the story quite nicely too). 

One suspects, though, that if Mr. Anderson were more concerned with story-telling, a number of the scenes here would either make better sense in context, or might have been eliminated.   There’s a long sequence where the rescue ship’s doctor is tormented by visions of her handicapped son.  The ship is preying on everyone’s fears, okay, but this is already known to everyone, including the doctor.  For her to run off in pursuit of this phantom makes no sense.  Similarly, what the heck is up with that ending?   Okay, I think I know the answer to both:  they’re great for shock-cuts, which, again, is cinematic but not narrative.

It’s not just individual scenes like this, but characters too.   Sam Neill seems twitchy from the get-go—rather than being a sympathetic figure being set up for a tragic fall (narrative), he seems weird and slightly nuts from his first scene (cinematic).   Nothing is done to establish him other than slightly nuts, then really nuts, then really really nuts.  He’s more like a prop than a character.   Similarly, as critic James Bowman points out, everyone on the ship is incredibly rude to everyone else.  This is (kind of) explained in a throwaway line about the crew being pulled off a well-earned rest, but that makes no narrative sense—it makes cinematic sense, in that the characters can be short-tempered and shout at each other, which can be used to tighten shots and build up tension.   One really silly scene shows Lawrence Fishburne and his second in command arguing over the nature of the situation they find themselves in.   Joely Richardson is explaining her theories about the ship, and her ideas are pretty interesting and tie in with what we’ve seen.  But Mr. Fishburne says he “doesn’t have time” to listen to this kind of stuff.  It makes sense in a cinematic way (the tension in the air) but it’s stupid in a narrative way.  They’re all in the midst of an unpredictably dangerous situation, Mr. Fishburne told Ms. Richardson to come up with some answers, why would he then tell her he doesn’t have time for information that might save all their lives? 

You got me.  Divorced from any real human interaction with its audience, Event Horizon (the movie) has some effective scenes and some cool atmosphere, but it can’t really scare us.  It can shock us and disgust us, true, but one gets the feeling from the story that it wants a lot more than that.  In order to scare me, you have to make me connect in a fundamental way with what’s happening on screen.  In order to shock me, or disgust me, all you need is a flash cut or some make-up effects, or both.  

In contrast, Lost Voyage took the same story (it was made a few years after Event Horizon) but personalized it, so that we were presented with characters with which we could sympathize.  When they met their fates, we could feel for them, rather than merely react to their grisly demises (which, to Lost Voyage’s credit, were more suggested than seen).   But that sort of thing probably wasn’t scheduled for Event Horizon.  Not enough time for it this year.  No, not with shooting all the shock cut stuff.   Maybe next year.  Ooh, or maybe for a sequel!    Event Horizon II:  Beyond This Horizon.    Worse things have happened.

Resident Evil Starring: Milla Jovovitch, zombie fodder. Director and image processor: Paul W. S. Anderson.
Case in point, tonight’s evidence, Resident Evil, which Mr. Anderson wrote and directed based on the popular series of games.  

…wow, did we just catch you off guard?  If you haven’t read our previous summation of Mr. Anderson and his film Event Horizon, well, that wasn’t very narrative of us…but it sure was cinematic!    You should have seen the look on your face!

In case you’d rather not bother, or you just have, the short version is that Mr. Anderson is very talented in film-making terms—setting up shots, editing sequences for maximum effectiveness, framing and building up tension…but as a storyteller, something one might think would be fundamental to a moviemaker, he…uh, falls short.  Resident Evil short.

Let me first say, as a caveat, that I have never played the games, so I don’t know how much of the things in this film, how many of the elements that comprise it, were forced on Mr. Anderson in order to comply with the game universe.   Generally, that sort of thing doesn’t tend to bother film-makers tasked with bringing a video game to the screen; the name, and its presumed built-in audience, is usually considered enough to tempt the masses to the Cineplex.   But I’ll be generous and assume that many of the contrivances here were originally in the games.

Let me also admit, upfront, that this film is entertaining, stupid fun.   And what makes it entertaining, stupid fun is Mr. Anderson’s film-making ability.   It moves along pretty nicely, and it has a rockin’ soundtrack co-provided by Marilyn Manson that manages to overpower (through sheer volume) any sort of “Hey, that doesn’t make sense!” objections until one has time to think about it later.   This film was probably a blast to watch in theatres, and it has a surprisingly high repeat value.   Every few months, I’ll take out the DVD and watch it.   It’s great to exercise to, and if you’re doing something else (like typing) it makes a pleasant background hum.

But boy, is it stupid and contrived, and filled with sheer coincidence.   Case in point—

Well, I guess I should outline the story.   In a high-tech underground lab (the Hive), an experimental virus is deliberately released (through sabotage).   The automated defense system springs into action, cuts access to the outside world, and kills everyone inside.   A squad of company SWAT cops is sent in to find out what happened.   At the entrance to the Hive, they find Alice (our heroine) and her husband, who have no memories, and a random cop.   They all decide to go down to see what happened.   Well, guess what!  The virus reanimated all the dead people as cannibalistic zombies, and mayhem ensues.  Along the way, there are other creatures to contend with, the still-functioning computer, and a traitor among their ranks.   In the end, while Alice triumphs, the company actually wins.

So, back to my case in point.   Down in the underground lab, the squad pauses by some sealed lab rooms that flooded and drowned the people inside.  A dead woman floats up to the glass, and everyone’s startled.   A second or two after they leave, her eyes fly open and her hand flies to the glass.   Wow, what an unlucky break for our heroes!   If they’d waited five more seconds, they would have seen this, and the zombies they encounter later wouldn’t have been a surprise to them. 

Another.  Alice, awake but with amnesia, goes to the front door of her house and says, tentatively to no one, “Hello?”   And the biggest flock of birds you have ever seen turn out to have incredibly sensitive hearing, and they all fly off loudly into the twilight.  I’m sure that’s happened to all of us!   Let me mention here that she doesn't scream "Hello," she just says it in a normal tone of voice.

And another:   several of the SWAT team are trapped in a corridor leading to the main computer room.   A laser beam sweeps along at neck level, and all but one of them manage to evade it.   The beam then returns at foot level, but rises to chest level just in time to kill another team member.   Finally, the beam appears again, and splits into a grid of beams consisting of squares about three inches on a side, ie, unless the team has some mice members, they are, in the vernacular, toast.

So here’s a question.   Why didn’t the defensive lasers just start out with the grid pattern, and kill everyone in the first pass?   What the hell does having three separate styles of laser patterns accomplish, aside from adding to the running time (and supposedly generating tension, which it might have initially)?

Answer, I imagine, is this (and it’s probably the same answer for all of these shots):  because it’s cinematic in the purest (unencumbered with storytelling) sense, and thus, cool.   Which, in a purely visual sense, it is.  It makes no sense for the computer to toy with people this way (“You will only survive if you are…a gymnast!  Ha ha, a really good gymnast!”) since these people have weapons that could disable the lasers given some time.  That these folks don’t use their weapons, and that the deadly laser somehow doesn’t slice up the device they had with them to disable the computer, is really irrelevant.   It’s all how cool it looks.   It’s the same with the shot of the drowned woman, earlier—it’s just cool, in a film-making sense, to do a cut like this, and to heck with storytelling and logic and things like that.   It’s also the same with the flock of birds.   It makes no sense in any other sense than pure audio-visual sensation.

Another case in point.   As noted, when the virus is released in the complex, the whole building is sealed off and the computer kills everyone.   There are some remarkably effective shots here, one in particular of an elevator shooting downward, filled with (unseen) screaming people, finally impacting with a sickening finality…and the elevator cables slowly flutter down after, like falling leaves.  It’s a shot that, in all honesty,  approaches poetry.   But it begs another question—what is the computer really up to, here?   It senses a breach in containment, and its orders are to kill anyone possibly infected, which means everyone…but it really seems to take a sadistic delight in doing so in as many cruel ways as possible.   Another elevator, for example, stops right at a floor, and the people inside try to escape—one of their number squeezes partly through the opening the others are able to make in the doors.   But then the computer shoots the elevator toward the floor—just so the woman partly through can stop right above the floor.   Then the elevator shoots back up, and the young woman isn’t so lucky.    As noted, the lab rooms are sealed and filled with water, drowning those inside.  One technician seizes an axe and smacks the window, and a small crystal of glass bounces and clinks into the corridor.   Despite the fact that he’s had some success, though, he (one guesses, offscreen) decides the hell with it.   He gave us one cool glass crystal bounce shot, and that was all he was supposed to provide.   He wasn’t trying to escape.   He was trying to give us a cool shot.  

And in the end, that’s pretty much what all the characters, and all the film-makers are trying to do:  give us cool shots.  Flocks of crows, dead women coming to life, people sliced up by lasers.   It’s all the same.  It’s irrelevant to story-telling.  It’s just supposed to be a cool shot.   And here I must admit, they are.

Freed of the necessity of following a story, Paul Anderson really seems to come into his own.  One of the coolest shots in this film is when the zombies make their initial assault on the team.   One of the lab technicians seen earlier in the film advances on our heroes.   As seen, he looks like a normal (if a bit drunk) person.  He then turns his face slightly, to reveal that most of the rest of his face has been eaten away.   It is a terrific Whoa Cool shot.  This whole film is full of moments like that. 

You'll note that this review is largely just sequence descriptions.   That's because that's all this film is, one sequence after another.  The fact that they seem to follow a narrative flow feels like sheer coincidence.    The whole narrative (such as it is) is merely excuse after excuse to give us the Cool Shot after Cool Shot, the memorable moments in a string.

Paul Anderson clearly knows his way around a camera and an editing console.   The whole of this film can be described as Build Up to Cool Shots, and then Cool Shots.    Narrative, story sense, dialogue and acting—none of that means anything.   It’s those Cool Shots that drive this movie, that provide its reason for being, and, if we’re being honest here, are the reason this movie is memorable at all.

In terms of entertainment value, this film is a roller-coaster.   Lots of thrills with pretty much no substance.   The traitor angle, and the anti-corporate angle, as well as the rampant technophobia here, don’t really provide much meat for the bones on display   It's just Cool Shots, strung together with Build-Ups.  

If you haven’t seen it, and you’d like to, don’t watch it as if you’re expecting a story.  Cool Shots and Build-Ups, that’s what you’ve got here.  I haven’t even mentioned the random slow-motion shots, the highly processed (and flash-edited) flash backs, the quick cuts, the framed shock cuts…all, as mentioned before, the hallmarks of the seasoned film-maker.   But nowhere near the storyteller.   Film has been, in recent years, moving more and more toward the presentation of images rather than the relating of a narrative, so perhaps Mr. Anderson will be seen as a pioneer.   Among the first to provide entertainment via a series of Cool Shots.

If that’s your idea of entertainment, this is your movie.  It’s kind of mine, I’ll admit--it's fun to watch, in the same way as a theme park ride is a thrill.  But I’ll deny it in court!