Event Horizon (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Event Horizon</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, August 1997) The first 10-20 minutes of this scary, stylish thriller include some of the best visuals ever seen in the SF genre. After oscillating between Alien, Solaris, The Shining and Hellraiser, the movie then goes firmly into the last’s territory, with all the nonsensical bloodbaths (literally) that presupposes. Definitely scary and unsettling, yes, but also very unsatisfying in it uneasy mix of Hard SF and shlocko horror: Who’s the bad guy? Satan himself! Effective direction by Mortal Kombat alumni Paul Anderson and superb techno-medieval set design make this a much more watchable movie than otherwise deserved. Good acting and impressive Special Effects are also notable. Writer Phil Eisner should take a crash course in Hard-SF, among other things. I predict a certain cult following.

(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2006) Curiously enough, I hadn’t revisited this film since its original theatre release: Event Horizon remains one of the few horror film to make me lose some sleep in contemplation. Fortunately, time caught up with me by offering a much-enhanced “Special Edition” version of the film, complete with almost a decade’s worth of hindsight. As DVD aficionados will tell you, the real story about a film takes a few years to emerge, and the “second generation” DVDs can usually afford to annoy people who have since moved on. And so director Paul Anderson takes some pleasure in talking about Event Horizon‘s rushed production, insane post-production deadlines and difficult testing process. He’s the first to acknowledge that the finished film isn’t as good as it could have been. Certainly, a second look at it can’t match the experience of seeing it on a really really big screen: at home, it simply comes across as a serviceable horror/SF hybrid, more thrilling than horrific and yet less flawed than I perceived it at the time. Blame it on more realistic impressions, maybe: these days, I’m more likely to be thankful for what does work than indignant at what doesn’t. While Event Horizon remains an imperfect film, it’s still a good treat for SF/horror fans, and it still plays well despite the pre-digital effects. Interestingly enough, I re-discovered that much of the soundtrack came from artists (Orbital and the Prodigy) that I would later embrace with enthusiasm.

Absolute Power (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Absolute Power</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, August 1997) Good actors, suspicious plotting, bad ending and way too long. Difficult to be excited over the tale of a recluse thief who witness a scuffle ending in death involving the President, his mistress and two Secret Service agents. One or two good scenes, the remainder is an exercise in doing-something-else-while- the-movie-plays-out.

Bellwether, Connie Willis

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 247 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56296-7

The human mind is a fascinating thing. Witness the phenomenon of fads, fashions, celebrities, popular entertainment and other temporary manifestations of insanity. Men and Women of this technological society always crave the cool, the hip, the new.

Almost as entertaining as these manias are the explanations concerning them. Especially interesting is the concept of “memes”, or self-replicating ideas… a ideological analogue to biological viruses. Considering the anti-communist paranoia of the fifties as being a sociological plague is oddly appealing. In this context, fads may just be a harmless (?) analogue to the flu. Makes you reconsider grunge, right?

While Connie Willis doesn’t use “memes” anywhere in the narrative, Bellwether is at the same time an enjoyable character study of an enormously likable protagonist, a touching love story, and a genuine present-day science-fiction story.

Sandra Foster is single, literate, funny and a sociologist. Her area of study: Fads… and what causes them. But the way to scientific discovery is chaotic at best, and Sandra will have to battle management, acronyms, incompetent secretaries, sheep and shortsighted libraries to attain her goal… if she can figure out what it is.

Bellwether is told in a quick, humane, light tone. This isn’t the manipulative tearjerker that Doomsday Book was, nor is it the meaningless tale that Unexplored Territory was. A hasty judgment on this novel would (rightfully) blast the incoherent treatment of science, management or administrative assistants (which ranges from dead-on to way-off) but of course… that would be ignoring the satiric tone of the novel.

Bellwether is a surprising book. As Uncle Bob would say: “No nekkid boobs, no bullets, 00 on the vomit-meter.” Only a few “rapid-movement” scenes, and they’re more funny than exciting. And yet… this reviewer was glued to the book during his rare free moments on an otherwise hectic day, staying up way too late to finish it. Higher praise is almost impossible.

No extraterrestrials or fancy futuristic high-technology are included here. Indeed, despite the satiric mode, Bellwether might contain one of the most realistic depiction of scientific research ever included in a SF novel. Even if half of it’s implausible (everything connected to the Niebnitz grant, for instance), it’s the other half that counts.

No comments are necessary on the romance subplot… except that it’s mature, quiet and should appeal to even the most cynical hard-SF fan.

Said SF-fans should relish the lumps of exposition scattered here and there in the novel. Did you know that color fads are usually caused by technological progress? Or that the most popular fads require a low ability threshold? (A most telling anecdote happened a few days after reading Bellwether: While walking through downtown Ottawa, this reviewer heard bongo drums played by a couple a street musicians and immediately thought back to the corresponding passage in the novel: “Oh yeah; low ability threshold!”)

Bellwether redeems Connie Willis after the overrated Doomsday Book and the overpriced, underwhelming Remake. The potential appeal of this book is enormous, even reaching far outside the usual boundaries of the genre: This might even be one book you’d want to give to SF-challenged relatives who are always asking why you keep reading “this Buck Rogers stuff”.

Thoroughly recommended.