Monday, February 3, 2014

Horror vs. Sci-fi: Genre and the Nature of Disbelief

In my opinion, Sci-fi/Horror is one of the greatest genre hybrids of all time. It reaches all the way back to Mary Shelley writing about Frankenstein's Monster, which was a defining work in both genres. They fit together so well in part because they inspire questions about the consequences we face as individual people, as a society, as creatures on a planet that may or may not be alone in time or space. They both deal in the unknown, or unexplained, but often in different ways. For example, science fiction looks into the vastness of space and sees possibility, advanced technology, the enlightenment of discovery and the awesome potential of meeting new intelligent life. Horror wants to show you why you should be very, very afraid of those things.

But that's a shallow reading of the potential of each genre. The truth is, they can reach and be so much more. They are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes they can even swap M.O.'s and really blow your mind. 

Merging science fiction and horror has resulted in some amazing films. The adaptations of FRANKENSTEIN should be mentioned, but two of the best and most successful examples are ALIEN and ALIENS. Other films worth mentioning include THE THING, SCANNERS, and VIDEODROME. Even the 1953 version of WAR OF THE WORLDS is considered to be a hybrid of the two genres. 

Thinking about this has made me wonder, though: Even if the two genres fit together well, do we experience them differently? Do I approach them differently? Do I expect more from science fiction than I do of horror?

And I'll tell you what made me even entertain the idea that there might be a difference: EVENT HORIZON.

Recently a friend posted an article about Stephen Hawking's revised thoughts on black holes and the idea of event horizons. It would be kind to say my knowledge on the subject is limited, so if you love physics and space science, read more about it here. I think space and physics are super cool, but I'm lucky if I understand half of what I read about them. Doesn't stop me from trying, though.

With the way my brain works, naturally after I read the article I was in the mood for watching the film, EVENT HORIZON. It had been sitting in my Netflix queue for a while, waiting for just such inspiration. I had never seen it before, and knew very little about it aside from the fact that it was sci-fi/horror in genre.

Despite that, I realize in retrospect that I was ill-prepared for the direction of the plot.

In EVENT HORIZON, Sam Neill is accompanying a rescue crew searching for a spaceship that disappeared into a black hole years prior, and has now returned. There is, by the way, no talk of event horizons as a phenomena, that's just the name of the ship that disappeared. Event Horizon. Of course, there wouldn't be much of a story if it was as simple as picking up a ship full of still-alive crew members who have fascinating stories of the deep reaches of space.

As Neill's character explains, he built the ship with technology that has the ability to create a gateway, a black hole, that allows the ship to travel to locations in space that would take a thousand years to reach for any other ship. This technology does the equivalent of folding space and time, and then smoothing it out again. I'll admit, my response went something like: "And you thought this was a good idea... why?" But that isn't where the film lost me. 

If you care about me spoiling some of a 17 year old movie, you may want to skip ahead. My breaking point for the plot of the film was not how this ship was supposedly jumping around space. I watch and love Star Trek, I can swing with warp drives and all sorts of things. No, the problem was that they somehow ended up in a hell dimension, which caused the ship to come to life and begin promptly torturing and flaying everyone on board. My brain wasn't having it. It did the equivalent of a dog cocking his head, and then gave up trying to understand the movie anymore. "Shut 'er down, we're done here!"

That made me wonder why I would have that reaction. Since when is buying into a hell dimension, possessed inanimate objects, or random malicious violence that big of a problem for a horror fan? Did the movie take a wrong step, or did I?

I think I went into the film prepared to buy into more realistic horrors of space travel, not a film about how space travel leads us into the jaws of evil. The horrors were vaguely supernatural, more like Hellraiser in Space than ALIEN. It threw me, and my brain tried to check out.

The truth is, EVENT HORIZON is not a bad movie. The science is a little wonky, but the story is interesting, it's suspenseful, it has some nice kills, and a good cast. Laurence Fishburne does a great job as the captain of the rescue ship. He was my favorite character, partially because after they see a leftover video of the crew of Event Horizon being brutally eviscerated his reaction goes something like: "Aaand now we're leaving." His character was the audience's ambassador to the movie, the force that tries to keep the rest of the characters from effectively throwing themselves under a bus.

So was the misstep really mine? Maybe. I was psyched for learning more about black holes and event horizons, and this is not the film to do that. I expected more space science and less random hell dimensions. But I guess the filmmakers could have thrown sci-fi fans a bigger bone, too. 

In the end, I'm not really interested in evaluating who did what wrong, but why it seems to make a difference, and how delicate the balance between science fiction speculation and horror speculation really is. They're different beasts that play so nicely together, but are there limits to what the plot of a sci-fi horror film can support? I'm definitely going to be paying more attention from now on. 


  1. I saw "Event Horizon" in the theater, and I remember being rather unimpressed with it but couldn't really put my finger on why. I think you have a pretty good take on it. The movie has garnered a following over the years, and some people maintain that it's seriously underrated. I caught part of it on cable a year or so ago, and while Lawrence Fishburne and Kathleen Quinlan were both pretty good, I think it's a bit of a misfire.

    FWIW I think horror works quite well in a science fiction film providing the horror element is scientifically plausible. ALIEN works because the creature running loose in the ship is at least plausible as a science fiction element. Similarly, QUEEN OF BLOOD basically has a vampire on a spaceship, but we buy it because we know some creatures on earth ingest blood and an alien that does that isn't entirely out of the question.

    1. Yeah, I think that's exactly it: scientifically plausible horror. As long as there's a logic to it that the audience can grasp and think, "Okay, yeah, science tells me this isn't totally impossible, I'll buy it" then it works.