Event Horizon (1997)

Scary empty astronaut suits are scary.

Years before Paul W.S. Anderson was eventually tasked to direct an Alien movie, he already exhibited an admiration for the franchise by way of his own Alien wannabe, 1997’s Event Horizon. It’s horror set in space, but instead of an extra-terrestrial creature wrecking havoc onboard a human spacecraft, the spacecraft itself is the antagonist. Being an early directorial effort, this is a film where Anderson still wears his influences on his sleeve, and actually does well by doing so. When he eventually injects his own style into the picture though is where it begins to fail. 

In the film, Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and his crew are pulled back into active duty from a well-deserved vacation. The mission is to answer a distress signal received from the Event Horizon – a starship that has been declared missing for years. They take Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) onboard as the resident expert and he explains to them what the Event Horizon was meant to do: To use gravitational power and bridge two points in space-time, making travel from any two locations instantaneous. He reveals that he is the creator of this technology and they are tasked to bring him to it. 

For much of the first hour, Anderson’s film looks and feels like a homage to Alien: The dirty white furnishings contrast with the steely gray interiors, the noise from the engines purr as the ship trudges through space, the utilization of dramatic noirish lighting as the sun’s light peeks into the spacecraft, the use of muted and narrow color palettes that Anderson would similarly use in Death Race, and the creation of impressively detailed set design required to bring the futuristic space setting to life. There are even moments that evoke influences from Kubrick, particularly in one sequence where Anderson shows us the eerie empty shots of Miller’s ship. So for a while there, it seemed as though Event Horizon had the potential of turning into a true sci-fi or horror classic. 

However, the story progresses like a descent into the mouth of madness. Soon after spotting the Event Horizon and docking on it, the crew starts to sense something wrong about the ship. Aside from the ominous eerie atmosphere, there’s also the matter of getting life scan readings on their gadgets where there’s only a stench of death, not to mention portals that appear out of nowhere to engulf unwelcome explorers, haunting hallucinations surrounding their deepest desires and feers, the splatter of blood and guts on the wall, and really just the general very obvious sense of danger that surrounds the damn ship. 

What begins as a picture with a sense of restraint in pushing forward elements of horror, mystery, and suspense eventually devolves into a sadistic and hellish gorefest. At one point early into the film, Anderson lingers on a shot of four empty astronaut suits with bare helmets looking like blank faces and it’s both unnerving and foreboding in the subtlest of ways. Later on, the scares come courtesy of images of a body hanged face down by hooks on the skin of its back with guts opened up and its innards spilled on the floor. It’s a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation that sees the film at one point looking like it could be the bastard child of Alien and The Shining, and then an hour later it transforms into Hellraiser meets Mortal Kombat. 

Truth be told, I’m not the slightest fan of horror films. It might even be the genre of film I dislike the most, so whatever I say here, your milage may vary. In fact, Event Horizon seems to be relatively the most respected in Paul W.S. Anderson’s much-maligned filmography. Laurence Fishburn and Sam Neill are also by far the most respectable of actors to top-bill any Anderson movie. Fishburn in particular brings a sense of reputability and dignity in his performance even as all hell breaks loose in the film. So in a lot of ways, I can see how other people – especially genre fans – can enjoy this film much more than I did. It’s just that while I liked the direction where Event Horizon was headed for the first half or so of the film, I feel that how it devolved into utter chaos was unfortunate. 

Rating: C+ (average)

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AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

the predators

Alien vs Predator begins with a recruitment montage, just like the way that heist films do when they’re putting together a crew to execute a robbery. But in this film, the group that’s being put together is meant for a mission to Antarctica, where wealthy tycoon Charles Weyland has discovered an archeological find and is out to uncover it to make his stamp on history. The resulting group includes around a dozen people comprised of scientists, archeological experts, engineers, mercenaries, and Weyland himself.

Almost halfway into the film things start to go awry; and then shortly after that, I catch myself wondering: Why are they all… dying already? It’s no exaggeration when I say that someone was dying every 2-3 minutes. From the time the shit hits the fan, bodies were falling everywhere. Even characters that one would have thought might hang around a little longer ended up being cannon fodder. There was whatshisname who kept on showing pictures of his kids and I felt like they’d keep him alive until the climax to maintain the viewer’s sympathy. No, he died quickly. Then there were whatstheirnames who seemed like they had sparks between them and a romance was brewing. No, they died quickly too. At around the 1-hour mark, there were only two people left, then shortly after that, just a sole survivor.

Then I figured that the film is, of course, called Alien vs Predator, so they were just setting the stage for the titular battle. But even then, in the original Alien, The crew of the Nostromo ended up being such remarkable characters. Ripley in particular became one of the most iconic figures in sci-fi history. In the original Predator, not only Arnie, but also Dillon, Mac, and even Jesse “The Body” Ventura were such memorable parts of the story. They were the elements in those films that made you care about the conflict and be afraid of the danger. In AVP though, I could barely remember half of the crew after the film had ended. What’s worse is that I haven’t the slightest idea about any of their characters and personalities outside of the several most featured ones. Years from now, none of them will stick in my memory.

So in the absence of anyone to root for, AVP ends up being dull. In fact, it has very little going for it, if it even has any. There is nothing frightening or thrilling, the visual effects, sets and creature design are notable, but not particularly impressive. All that this film shows is that its producers knew elementary mathematics. The Alien film and its sequels made bajillions of dollars at the box office. The Predator film and its sequels also made bajillions of dollars at the box office. Put them together and what do you get? Two bajillions of dollars of course! And that’s the story of the film right there: Never mind the perfunctory plot. Never mind the cardboard cutout characters. Let’s just take these two incredibly recognizable sci-fi film franchises, beef it up with a fair amount of serviceable effects, then let the people come in droves… and they did. AVP: Alien vs Predator made quite a lot of bajillions of dollars in the box-office as well.

Rating: D (bad)

Soldier (1998)

Kurt Russell in Soldier

In most strategic video games, a player usually chooses beforehand whether to play against a human or an AI (artificial intelligence). When playing an AI, there’s also the matter of how difficult the AI should be. At its highest difficulty, an AI is designed to be faster, stronger and more efficient than any human. In Soldier, infants are selected at birth and trained to be war machines that are similarly faster, stronger and more efficient than any standard military recruit. They’re not robots, but they might as well be. They are brainwashed – or programmed, if you will – to become the most efficient killers possible. Todd (Kurt Russell) is one of these soldiers and the best in his squad. However, when a younger and better breed of super-soldiers is introduced, Todd’s squad is rendered obsolete. After being beat by one of the young blood, Todd finds himself thrown out to a remote waste disposal planet called Arcadia.

On Arcadia, Todd discovers a small and peaceful human society. Through them, he starts to feel emotions and reconnect with his humanity. When the squad of super-soldiers land on Arcadia and attack the colony, it’s Todd who defends them – not only defeating the younger soldier who beat him earlier, but also its entire squad, including their commander. So how is it that Todd gets manhandled earlier in the film and then is able to wipeout the entire opposing squad later on? The answer lies in the video game analogy I cited earlier. 

Even though an AI is superior on paper than any human, a lot of high level gamers will still be able to beat an AI easily at its highest difficulty. In most cases, they can even beat several at the same time. This is because AI’s don’t have the capacity for genuine human thinking, and that makes all the difference. AI’s are caught up in a web of routines and pre-defined conditions. While the speed of their processing power makes them more efficient than a human, it also makes them more predictable, and this predictability can be exploited. Humans on the other hand have the ability to adapt and feel, which makes their actions infinitely more varied and unpredictable, and this is what enables Todd – having gotten in touch, even partly, with his humanity – to save the Arcadian colony from being destroyed.

The surprising thing about Soldier is that it’s a film that has a lot to say. It wrestles with the question of what it means to be human and what the price of progress and perfection can be, which is incredibly relevant in today’s increasingly chaotic and fast-paced world. The unfortunate thing about it though is while David Peoples (writer of Blade Runner, Unforgiven & Twelve Monkeys) tries to convey a noble message through his story, the director is not one well-equipped to treat the material justly. When one sees close-ups of a woman’s nipples poking through her garments, an unbearably cheesy song backing an even cheesier amateurish montage, a rubber snake bought from a toy store meant to be a menacing threat, and a colonel urinating out of his trousers in terror – then you know that Paul W.S. Anderson has more juvenile and superficial goals in mind. There is also the forgivable issue of a $60-million sci-fi picture looking like it had a $6-million budget, but when an actor meant to be stone-faced and deliver a mere 104 words throughout the whole film turns in a better acting performance than half of the cast, then there’s just no saving that.

In the hands of a more competent filmmaker, Soldier could have been good. With a better cast, it could have been great. But as it is, the crudeness of the film robs the material of its power while the tacky and campy direction drowns out the message and prevents it from coming through loud and clear.

Rating: C (poor)