Great Opening Sequences: Event Horizon (1997)

Picture of spacecraft with the text "Infinite size, Infinite Terror"

In the pantheon of flawed classics, Event Horizon occupies a very (un)healthy place. The film is a clear compromise; clearly cut to ribbons, frustratingly rushed and occasionally incoherent….and yet it remains a thrillingly effective blending of science-fiction and horror, dripping with ghoulish atmosphere, amazing set design, truly nasty shocks and mind-fucking editing. The director, Paul Anderson, started off iffily with the dull futuristic joyriding caper Shopping, went up a few notches with the delightfully silly Mortal Kombat (Best video game adaptation ever? Well it was at the time) but then went all out for film #3. Since then he’s gone downhill fast, to the point where even his immediate follow-up, the not-very-good SF actioner Soldier, now looks like one of his very best films given that what came after were loads of dreadful Resident Evils.

So back to 1997, when Anderson was only getting better and better, and even though Event Horizon got some medicore reviews, it also got some hugely enthusiastic ones, none more so than the one in the at-the-time newly formed Uncut magazine, which was so excitingly written that I was severely annoyed that I didn’t have the nerve to blag my way into 18-rated films until a few months later. I would have bloody loved this at the cinema as a teen who was devouring as much horror as he could but having never seen one on the big screen.

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I ended up seeing it on video (where my talent for acquiring 18-rated videos was a little more ingrained), and the second thing I thought during the opening was ‘shit, why didn’t I see this at the cinema?’ The first thing I thought of was ‘shit, this film is going to be amazing‘, and it was all down to the opening sequence. Oh yes, Event Horizon knows how to start. And part of it is to do with the perverse joys of messing with an opening studio logo. You’ve seen them before. Edward Scissorhands’ Fox logo amidst loads of snow. Batman’s day-into-night behind the Warners shield, The Burbs’ starting out in space and then zooming directly into the Universal logo… Event Horizon is up there with them. We begin with the triumphant fanfare of the Paramount logo (rarely heard in films, it’s mostly used for their TV presentations), the beautiful vista of the mountain during sunrise (or sunset?), the stars rolling into place…it’s all fine….it’s even grandiose. But then the music ebbs away, the skies darken and we move in towards the mountain, up, up…and into dark space….outer space…. and it’s obvious that something is wrong….very, very wrong….

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We continue to move further into space until we become immersed in an event horizon. Of course, many people wouldn’t have known what one of those was, so it probably just looked like a cross between a thunderstorm and an intergalactic whirlpool. Either way, it’s somewhere we wouldn’t want to be. Not in reality anyway. In a film, it’s definitely where we want to be, and if it isn’t, what the hell were you doing at this screening? Walk out, past a couple of doors and there you go, Batman and Robin is also playing, although for many that would be an even scarier proposition. So let’s stay in Screen 3, okay? The credits – which end up getting sucked into the event horizon – play out over this miasma, and while we can retrospectively smile a smile of satisfaction at the presence of the always excellent but probably unknown at the time Jason Isaacs and wonder what happened to Jack Noseworthy, always there in the background is the music….

Now the non-electronic element of the score is the traditional bit, and Michael Kamen, whilst better known for his action scores (in the late eighties, he was the go-to guy it seemed), has a high old time assaulting the senses with stabbing strings, swelling DANGER! DANGER! brass, and there’s eerie synths permeating, and even the sound of the event horizon itself throughout, trembling and quaking like the worst portent on Earth, or in this case not on Earth.

vlcsnap-2015-01-28-17h11m07s76When the credits have finished we delve headfirst into the darkness, after which we get a as-it-is-being-typed text prologue roll on to screen, and even this section manages to send shivers, thanks to the huge yet eerily sparse, utterly chilling Kamen strings in the distance…barely there in the distance, a little Bernard Herrmann-ish. The plot has begun in 2015, where the moon has been colonised, paving the way for commercial mining on Mars in 2032, and then the voyage of the Event Horizon space vessel eight years later, which is set to reach the edge of the solar system but disappears without trace just past Neptune, a disaster recorded as the worst in the history of space travel. Seven years after that, we’re in the film’s present, or as the film declares in classic John Carpenter/Escape from New York style: ‘2047: Now…’

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Cut to: space. A meteor hurtles towards us and we follow it as is passes us and there it is: a very unhappy looking, storm-swept Neptune. The Event Horizon, trembling the screen with its immense bass emanations. We hover past it, around it, and then into it – it looks abandoned, dead, haunted. Who designed this thing, you wonder? It’s almost tailor-made for a horror film, with its sickly green light and scary, limitless passageways.

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Now the CGI has dated a little bit, but all the floating debris, especially the bit when the paper cup rebounds against the wristwatch, was pretty imaginative and cool. We then move out of here and further into the ship, where something’s in the distance, floating – it’s a person. It looks dead, but it can’t be, it’s screaming, and we move right towards its charred skin and into its mouth…..and out of the eyeball of a just-woken-up Sam Neill’s Dr. Weir, who sleeps alone in his bedroom, pictures of his wife at his side, but she herself is not there. He speaks aloud that he misses her.

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Then, cut to Weir shaving. Shaving scenes are always guaranteed squirm-inducers. Especially when they involve cut-throat razors. It’s all a question of when or will they cut themselves. This is one of the instances where they don’t, but before that there’s the simple chill of a dripping tap. Nothing else. For all of Event Horizon‘s eventual loudness and sensory-assaulting volume, this, the quietest moment in the film, has a chill all of its own. Weir stops shaving. Stares at the tap. He goes back to the mirror, moves in to shave and then BOOM!

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That’s the sound of the shutters on the window opening as we cut to outside, but everything’s upside down? We see Weir nonchalantly eating his breakfast cereal and the camera pans out, still upside-down, and we see we’re looking through the window of a space station, but the camera’s not finished here.

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We start to rotate 360 degrees, continuing to pull out, out, further out, further back, further back, past the immense structure of the station until Weir and his window are barely a dot, the Earth behind it. It’s a seriously spectacular shot, a total of 45 seconds which cost nearly a third of the film’s budget, and a terrific wrap up to an opening that promises much.

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The chances of a complete director’s cut (the rough cut lasts 40 or so minutes longer) of Event Horizon is apparently unlikely, but we can still hope. What remains is a flawed but excellent shocker that flopped at the box office but got the expected cult following shortly after. I can’t deny it’s got problems, but I always come back to it. By the way, if you fancy keeping your lunch down, don’t do what I did and freeze frame those video transmission bits later on to get a better look at what actually happened on board the Event Horizon all those years back. Yuck.

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Great Opening Sequences: Top Gun (1986)

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My tribute to the late Tony Scott and the first in my series of Great Opening Sequences, this was originally going to focus on the first ten minutes of The Hunger but that’ll come another time, because as great as it is, Scott’s debut film is, despite the style and the glossiness, somewhat unrepresentative of the director’s output in general. No, let’s move on to his next film, the enormous Top Gun, which for better or worse, fully established Scott’s approach to directing – slick, spectacular, exciting, visceral and crowd-pleasing. It was also very much the work of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer – their massively popular but critically derided style of reductionist characterisation, MTV-influenced aesthetics (and huge soundtrack success) and flashy, iconic pop-culture influence gave the FEEL of Top Gun huge impact and made the film a sensational success, even though normally fundamental things like the story are nothing-special. With Top Gun, it was all about the look, the sound, the volume, the surface, the Tom Cruise-effect and so on rather than anything of substance underneath, although I’m sure there are thousands out there who still cry when Anthony Edwards’ Goose gets killed. It definitely upset me when I was a child.

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So, it’s been said that in order to keep an audience in their seats you need the ultimate opening, and to get them talking about the film afterwards you need a killer ending. All that stuff in-between is apparently unimportant, so let’s not bother with that, and concentrate on Top Gun’s opening sequence, which establishes everything that makes the flashier end of eighties filmmaking so irresistible.

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We get the Paramount logo, which, depending on which version of the film you get, might be the old-school fade to blue version (which is correct) or the slightly less old-school zoom-in version (which isn’t correct and has replaced the older version on some DVD releases). See pics above for details. And what’s that sound? A simple drum beat. So very simple. Then there’s THAT sound. The Top Gun sound. You know it. Everyone knows it. It’s like a synthetic bell. And it’s quietly, forebodingly like the Second Coming. It’s the sound that will turn people on to Top Gun or turn people off. Over this we get some extraordinarily economical storytelling as the following text appears:

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Great stuff. Don’t piss about, just tell us that this film is going to be about the best of the best of the best. And in effect, this film will be the best of the best of the best. The top one percent. Scott, Simpson and Bruckheimer wanted to throw us straight into the action. They succeeded. And notice the way the text colons its way into the title. All the while the synths, those lovely synths, which are as cold as machines yet warm as the slow hum of a sunrise creep further and further into your heart. Am I taking the piss about all of this? Yes and no. I love synthesisers, and we’ve thankfully moved on from that whole rockist way of thinking that because they’re not strictly ‘real’ instruments, then they don’t have the same kind of heart as some raw, jagged guitar solo or the blood, sweat and tears of a real band. Oh yeah, we do get a guitar solo in the more famous version of this theme, and it’s as cheesy as Stilton, nowhere near as good as this quieter, more reflective version, which still is pretty cheesy. But I can’t resist it. This music comes courtesy of Harold Faltermeyer, who had already done Beverly Hills Cop and would reach his peak on The Running Man. Faltermeyer is so quintessentially 1980s that his scores are unimaginable in any other decade, and his synth-heavy, massively entertaining scores (check out Tango and Cash) are always good value.

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After the title, we get an opening sequence that, in its way, is just as arty and stylish as that of The Hunger (and apparently made studio execs choke in fear that an aerial version of that commercial flop was in store). The use of slow-motion as fade in is really quite noticeable – usually Simpson/Bruckheimer films go right for the jugular, going for the rock song, the fast pace, the big bang….while this one takes its time. We get planes, these mighty, mighty planes, getting ready for take off, indecipherable radio communication speak, mysterious silhouettes guiding these planes on their way, the jet-thrust of air, the strangely phallic way the planes enter shot and those landing pads (or whatever they are) rise up, and what’s with that sky? That doesn’t look real. Yep, it’s the filters. The filters that make everything look so damned cool and stylish, the ones that Simpson, Bruckheimer, Scott and loads more would use again and again, and despite (actually, BECAUSE) that they don’t resemble real life at all, it’s easy to see why millions fell for it. It’s because it looks so unreal, strange, exciting….and that’s the movies. That’s escapism. And that’s why enlistment for the air force skyrocketed after this movie. So, is Top Gun nothing more than an advert for the United States Navy? Well, it didn’t hurt it, that’s for sure. What’s noticeable is the atmosphere of teamwork here, and the sense that everybody’s in on the game, and it’s this sense of working-class/blue-collar camaraderie that I think was a major draw in this opening sequence. Of course, that all goes out of the window once we start concentrating on Tom Cruise’s Maverick, but for this opening sequence, all that was missing was an actual navy logo and slogan in the bottom right of the screen.

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Still, we can’t spend forever dreaming and getting ready to take off, let’s DO THIS THING!!!! YEAHHH!! After the music reaches its minor crescendo, the engines kick off, the guy gives the all-clear and it’s GO time! And if the critics were uncomfortable about the prevalence of synths so far, they were going to choke on their popcorn (or the more respectable alternative) when ‘Danger Zone’ kicks in and all of a sudden we’re ROCKING with the LOGGINS! That’s right, Kenny Loggins, as much a vital part of the 1980’s soundtrack scene as Faltermeyer, does his absolute best to soft-rock ruin the high-impact of these take-off scenes but strangely ends up enhancing them, as the sheer volume of the engines obliterates any common sense and gets you going ‘America! Fuck Yeah!’.  Yeah, the volume. Jesus, these planes are the real stars of the show. They sound like god damned monsters. No wonder that we get the sense that these guys on the landing strip, despite not even getting to fly the planes and are only behind the scenes, fucking LOVE their jobs, even doing a little dance, or still acting shocked and spellbound by what they see even though they must be seeing this ALL THE TIME.

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It’s a high-altitude opening, and it’s almost a shame when the rest of the film doesn’t quite match its velocity, but that’s a great deal of what Simpson, Bruckheimer and Scott were about – sound and vision, not plot and dialogue, even though there is some classic dialogue to enjoy  later on. Scott would make far better films – The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide and the flawed but underrated Revenge, but this opening sequence is his most iconic moment.

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