"Event Horizon:" Conquering Hell


Paul Anderson’s Event Horizon is a hard movie to watch, but from a Christian perspective it reminds us that Hell can only be defeated when someone goes there and shatters its power from inside. Hence why Jesus Christ, as the Apostles’ Creed says, descended into Hell – to rip it apart like Sampson did the Philistine temple, toppling its mighty pillars.

This was my spot reaction to the film on Facebook late at night. I decided afterwards that a mere sixty words wouldn’t do to capture Event Horizon’s impact as a theological meditation; a longer piece was required. Above is the TLDR version. Below, let’s flesh out a little more those initial thoughts.

We’re familiar with science going too far and landing us in a hell of our own making. That’s a well-worn sci-fi trope. It isn’t, however, what Anderson explores in Event Horizon. His movie wonders, What if our scientific endeavors may one day land us not in a metaphorical hell but in the literal Hell – the one with a capital ‘H’ – of religious tradition? All will soon become clear.

The film’s title – where better to start our analysis? – is also the name of a spacecraft aboard which the plot largely takes place. And in the theatrical release poster, the ship’s cruciform – or crosslike – shape stands out under the caption, “Infinite space. Infinite terror,” against a vast blue planet: Neptune. Ominously, though, it’s an inverted cross…

After the opening titles, we read some exposition – à la Star Wars, only not as lengthy. The year is 2047. In 2040, a deep space exploration vessel called the Event Horizon went missing. We could speculate about why seven years exactly, given this number appears all over the Bible, but you’ll be happy to know that we won’t.

An establishing shot roams over the craft, drinking in the Event Horizon’s cruciform shape from the poster. The cross, remember, for all its redemptive Christian symbolism, is a torture device. It’s as tame as a great white shark with a pair of tattered speedos caught in its teeth. Appropriately, then, the final ghastly spectacle in the sequence – as we move, now, to the ship’s foredeck – is a hollow shriek and a corpse hovering in zero gravity.

My favorite YouTuber, the Critical Drinker, describes the Event Horizon thus: ‘It’s like a haunted house crossed with the Mary Celeste in space.’ Anderson gives us a sci-fi take on the classic folklore trope of such legendary vessels as the Flying Dutchman. Pirates of the Caribbean, of course, propelled this ghostly galleon into the 21st Century with Davy Jones at its helm.

Crosscut from the Event Horizon over to Dr. Billy Weir, an astrophysicist summoned to join the crew stationed on search and rescue vehicle, the Lewis and Clarke. After a testy first encounter between Dr. Weir and the Clarke’s Captain Miller, the crew load themselves into statis tanks and set off on a journey to the Event Horizon. The craft has reappeared after that inexplicable seven-year disappearance and it’s orbiting Neptune.

556 days later, the Clarke homes in on the Event Horizon. Before debarking, Dr. Weir, who was the Event Horizon’s designer-in-chief, takes questions about his creation from the crew. The ship’s objective was to reach Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun. What Weir can’t answer, and it’s a big oversight, is whether that’s really where the Event Horizon has been all this time. It sure hasn’t been chillaxing poolside on a deckchair in Marrakesh.

Weir describes how the Event Horizon is supposed to work: “What it does is it creates a dimensional gateway, that allows it to jump instantaneously from one point of the universe to another light years away.” But was it in the crew’s power to choose what awaited them on the far side?

There’s only one way to find out. And so, the team prepares to board the forlorn vessel and search for clues. To cross over, they deploy this jetway-type tunnel which Miller calls an ‘umbilicus.’ It attaches the tiny Lewis and Clarke onto the much larger Event Horizon – the mothership, if you will.

Anderson later has the Event Horizon – which, it will transpire, is possessed of a malevolent will – hijack Weir’s mind and send the doctor back through this ‘umbilicus’ to blow the Lewis and Clarke to pieces. Hmm… What else do we know that’s connected to an ‘umbilicus’ and is often threatened with destruction? Does one detect a comment on a certain social issue?

Whatever about all that. Our first indication that all is not well aboard the Event Horizon comes when the Clarke scans the wreckage for signs of life. After all, the mission — part of it, at any rate — is to rescue survivors, if any there are, from the craft’s maiden voyage.

On the scanner screen, the whole ship lights up like an Anglican’s eyes when the priest emerges for Morning Prayer in a funky new chasuble. In other words, the vessel itself is alive. “It’s as if the ship brought back something with it, a life force of some kind,” they realize as time passes.

They find out, as well, that spacecrafts which have acquired sentience don’t appreciate astronauts poking around inside them. Who knew? So, the Event Horizon gets mad and retaliates. The crew have awful hallucinations which make St. John’s Revelation look like Little Miss Tiny’s Big Adventure by comparison. These deliria harness their targets’ regrets, which makes them almost unbearable. One character tries to commit suicide.

These men and women of science have unexpectedly found themselves up against supernatural forces they cannot explain. To make matters worse, the two female cosmonauts find a highly disturbing video log; it’s from before the Event Horizon vanished. Every mortal sin, from fornication to cannibalism, is on display. The previous crew lost all semblance of humanity. But why?

There was a frame in this movie that I found utterly terrifying, and it was during this orgiastic sequence. The Event Horizon’s original captain stands with eyes gouged out and sitting like two grisly gobstoppers on the palms of his hands as he warns, “Liberate tuteme ex inferis,” or, “Save yourself from this hell.”

These revelations cause the crew to turn on Dr. Weir: “When you break all the laws of physics, do you seriously think there won’t be a price?” Therein lies the horror film’s credo: that rules aren’t made to be broken; ‘the horror movie is innately conservative,’ Stephen King puts it, ‘even reactionary’ (Danse Macabre, p. 203).

Miller has, understandably, had enough. Exactly halfway through the screenplay, the captain introduces religious language into the movie’s dialogue with, “God help us.” Our feet are now firmly planted on supernatural terrain. Anderson has kept such references out until now. But from this point on, theological terms will flow thick and fast.

Weir, as we know, destroys the Clarke – which is a bummer, because Miller had planned to pilot it away from the Event Horizon then use its guns to rain down warheads onto the haunted ship. As I noted in the summary paragraph, though, that isn’t how to triumph over Hell; only from inside its most inward citadel can Satan’s kingdom be vanquished.

As chaos takes hold on the Event Horizon, we witness a string of gory deaths. One crewmate falls to her doom chasing a mirage of her son. Another is killed when the bomb Weir planted on the Clarke detonates. Weir himself becomes a kind of satanic or demonic avatar, as far as I can tell, with superhuman strength and gouged out eyes. He’s able to throw his next victim around like a sock puppet before vivisecting him. Ouch.

Time is running out. Ultimately, realizing that he must sacrifice his life to save his remaining crew, Captain Miller gives an order for the survivors to evacuate. They will shelter on the Event Horizon’s foredecks while he blows up the sentient part of the vessel – its brain, essentially – located in the rear. There’s no going back.

In a final showdown, Weir turns up again. He looks more satanic than ever, and fights with Miller over the detonator which is ready to release a colossal blast. I watched this bit – probably the reason the show’s an 18 in the UK – peeking between my fingers. Weir uses telepathy to show Miller hideous images – boy, are they gruesome – of the Clarke’s crew being tortured. “Hell is only a word,” snarls Weir, “The reality is much, much worse.”

Whilst Weir is busy doing this, however, Miller has time to press the big red button in epic slow-motion. The Event Horizon goes down in flames, and the survivors escape Neptune’s orbit in its remains. I won’t pretend the film’s ending isn’t ambiguous as to whether the monstrous intelligence is gone – there never is, in any horror flick, a definitive triumph over evil – but we sense that whatever it was that sowed such agony has been dealt a heavy blow.

Now, the biblical text I thought about in relation to this movie was Judges 16 and its telling of Sampson’s heroic last stand in the Philistine temple. The Philistines make a spectacle of the once mighty warrior. Verse 25 tells us they made him give a performance of some kind. Whatever the nature, it was no doubt abasing and humiliating.

What Sampson and Miller both realize is the need to sacrifice themselves within their enemy’s territory to win the day. “Let me die with the Philistines!” cries a newly defiant Sampson (v. 30, NKJV), who musters all his resurgent strength to fell the temple’s main supports. He could only do so from within the Philistines’ house of torment.

In Christian tradition, we believe in Jesus’ descent into Hell. The modern translation, ‘He descended to the dead,’ does an injustice to the meaning that older wording carries. Christus Victor, the victorious Christ, announced his messiahship within the Devil’s fortress, and even the souls in Hades heard his Gospel (see 1 Peter 3-4). We refer to this act wherein Jesus conquered Satan as the Harrowing of Hell. As Easter tells us, this is not where the story stops. Jesus rose again three days later. Now he sits by God’s right hand until the time comes to make all things new.

For anyone who can deal with gore, I do recommend a viewing of Event Horizon. I never cease to be amazed how something as unlikely as a sci-fi horror show from the late 90s can so vividly clarify the Gospel for me. Christ really does, to coin a phrase, play in ten thousand places.

9/12/2022 2:52:03 PM
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  • Matthew Allen
    About Matthew Allen
    Matthew Allen is a writer and musician based in Northern Ireland. He is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied Theology and Liberal Arts.