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Outland (1981)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

OUTLAND (1981)

Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking, Kika Markham

Written and Directed By: Peter Hyams

The Short Version

Call it a simple Western that happens to be set in outer space.

Sean Connery makes for an effective sheriff.

Peter Hyams does an outstanding job in the big chair.

The world realization is first rate.

Outland is a gem that flies under too many radars; it’s definitely worth your time.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

COLD PACK CHEDDAR.

For the long trip out into space.


Pairs Well With...

JACK DANIEL'S.

“You wanna go get drunk?”

“Yes.”

“At least you have some sense left.”

“They sent me here to this pile of shit because they think I belong here.  I want to find out if... well, if they're right.  There's a whole machine that works because everybody does what they are supposed to.  And I found out I was supposed to be something I didn't like.  That's what's in the program.  That's my rotten little part in the rotten machine.  I don't like it.  So I'm going to find out if they're right.”


Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with being derivative.  Case in point: Outland, a film that I remember very much enjoying back in the day and which, thankfully, I find that I still do here and now in the age of blu ray.  A space Western that makes no bones at all about being an amalgamation of High Noon, Alien, and a narco cop show, Outland turns its derivative nature into an asset, and the end result is just under two hours’ worth of solid sci fi suspense.

The action takes place on (a now shown to be scientifically inaccurate, but oh well) Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.  The Con-Am company has been awarded franchise rights by the governments of Earth to run a Titanium mine there, and it’s turning them a tidy profit, thanks to a recent boost in worker productivity.  Of course, the number on unexplained deaths has gone up considerably over the past year, but no one seems to concerned about that… save for newly arrived Marshall W.T. O’Neil (Sean Connery, Thunderball), just arrived for his one year rotation as the mining colony’s only real representative of law and order.  He quickly uncovers the sinister cause of those deaths and the conspiracy behind it, but whether or not he can survive long enough to do anything to stop the corrupt powers that be is an open question.  Some professional killers are showing up on the next shuttle to silence the lawman, and neither his deputies nor the colony’s denizens are inclined to offer him any assistance…

Sure, the above looks a whole lot like the plot of High Noon (just change some names and substitute the word “train” for “shuttle” and you’re there), and the mining colony looks an awful lot like it might be supplying the space refinery being towed by the Nostromo in Alien, but so what?  Let’s be honest: most people at this point have never seen High Noon before and never will (I have, and I’ll admit that I consider it to be a bit overrated and like this much better), and even if some of the sets and the style of the opening credits look to have been borrowed from storyboards consulted by Ridley Scott a couple of years before, there’s nothing wrong with lifting from the best.  What matters is how well the movie being presented on the screen works with the tools at hands, whatever their ancestry, and at that, Outland not only delivers the goods; it excels. 

One of main reasons that it excels is the way that Peter Hyams treats the “dirty industrial” production design concepts that he’s borrowed from Mr. Scott (and, one could argue, Mr. Lucas).  Both as director and as uncredited cinematographer (there’s gossip behind that), Hyams does an outstanding job of presenting the utilitarian world of the Io mining colony, emphasizing the claustrophobic interiors without limiting his camera while making outer space look as cold and empty as it really is.  He takes all the time necessary to build his world and present an atmosphere without sacrificing the story’s pace; indeed, his deliberate treatment of things only serves to add to the suspense factor of his script.  Outland is very much a director’s film, and Hyams puts on a clinic; the savvy will appreciate the talent on display, while everyone else is content to just enjoy the show.

The other talent on display, of course, is that of Sean Connery as the long arm of the law.  It’s easy to dismiss him here as playing just another calm tough guy, but to do so is to miss a lot.  Sure, he plays O’Neil as tough, but it’s a humanistic tough, and with a very different brand of swagger than that which he brought to James Bond during the decades before.  This is a character with real convictions but who none the less questions his own mettle, especially after a shake up within his family early on.  Outland provides are rare peek at a Connery who can show a bit of vulnerability, and he does a remarkable job at it.  A throwaway role between high points in his career?  Not a chance.  This script gives Connery something real to chew on besides the scenery, and he does it exceptionally well.

Major support comes from Frances Sternhagen (Communion) in the role of Dr. Lazarus, O’Neil’s only real ally at the colony, and an anomaly in science fiction films, especially of this vintage: a major female character who’s not an action babe, a femme fatale, or anyone’s love interest.  Sternhagen’s feisty medical officer with a checkered past is a joy to watch whenever she’s on the screen, and Sternhagen herself is more than up to the challenge of standing toe to toe with scene-chewing threat Connery.  Nor is she the only talent in the backfield, for indeed there really aren’t any performances to complain about anywhere down the line, from Peter Boyle (The Shadow) as a corporate stooge to James B. Sikking (most memorable to many from “Hill Street Blues”) as a deputy with second thoughts to Marc Boyle (The Living Daylights) as the creepy cutthroat Spota.  Each and every player brings his or her character to life in a naturalistic way that’s both true to life and compelling , which in turn allows the viewer to become even further absorbed by the story and atmosphere since none of the performances get in the way.  It’s a rare balance, to be sure, but this cast nails it across the board.

This is why we forgive little things like smoking in a sealed system space colony (everyone was doing it during that era, anyway) and assassins who give no thought to firing projectile weapons next to pressure bearing outer walls (which is a mistake that the script is good enough to make them pay for).  Besides, the gore effects on the decompression look pretty good without ever going over the top, and who doesn’t love a little bloody decompression in outer space?

Bottom line, who cares if Outland is derivative?  I know I don’t.  Indeed, it turns its derivative nature into an asset so that if one knows where the references come from, it’s a fun but non-distracting thing to catch, and if one doesn’t, there’s nothing missed.  Outland is one of my favorite unsung flicks of the early 80s, and I’d definitely recommend it as something worth checking out, or even adding to the permanent collection.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2013


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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