Saturday Afternoon Movies, Part 2 – Outland (1981 Peter Hyams)

Okay so you have some time to kill and you don’t what to waste your time watching crap on TV. By the same token you’re knackered after work or whatever and you can’t be bothered with some arthouse horseshit where you’ll spend a week wondering if you understood the subtext or even worse… a documentary which you might actually learn something from. Nope you’ve had enough of all that learning. You just want to watch a western…in space. But not Star Wars. No, cos you’re not a child anymore. You want to watch something dark and gritty. On the frontier. Like Alien (1979) but not Alien, because you watched Alien: Covenant (2017) about a year ago and you still have not got over how shit it was. So what are the options? Well, there were lots of Alien-clones back in the early 80s when every movie theatre thought they needed a monster bursting variously, into, out of, or around a person in some form or another. There is Leviathan (1989) and DeepStar Six (1989), which is basically Alien: underwater. There is Life (2017), which was made recently but feels like it should have been left in the early 80s. There is The Thing (1982), which is awesome but dammit, you wanted a western in space. If you were better informed you would realise that there is just the movie for you. A movie which is gritty and realistic but set on a strange alien world. A movie which is hard and brutal but also involves a heroic stand against the odds. A movie which involves just enough of a criminal investigative plot to keep you interested. The movie I speak of is Sean Connery’s 1981 science fiction thriller, Outland.

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Outland is without a doubt a strange hybrid. Part western, part science fiction, part crime-thriller. It isn’t exactly a dystopian look at the future in the vein of Escape from New York, which would come out during the same year. Or like Blade Runner, another science fiction police-thriller, which would arrive the following year. Outland’s brutal industrial setting is far more like, well, like a mining camp. With the notable exception in this case that the miners have to wear space suits and that orange blob in the sky outside is Jupiter. The mundane industrial existence depicted in the movie is reminiscent of the “them and us” bickering that characterised much of the expositional dialogue of the first two Alien movies. Like the characters in Alien the characters in Outland are fodder for rich corporations. As one character says: “people and places that we only know from letter heads.” In this unforgiving world, at the brutal and less-than-glamorous end of space, people are concerned with survival. They work and they look forward to getting back home to spend their bonus pay. Sean Connery plays Marshal O’Neil who, with his team of less than trustworthy deputies, are the only law on this barren rock in space. O’Neil, devastated by the quite understandable departure of his wife and son, is faced with a series of bizarre deaths and an increasingly psychotic station population. The corrupt station officials seem less concerned as long as the mining company keeps getting its quota of ore. With no reason in the world to take a stand O’Neil decides to bring down the corruption on the station. After all, why wouldn’t he. He’s Sean Connery.

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Outland shows the harsh industrial existence of space colonisation. At the same time it lifts its “one honourable man in a den of thieves” plot from the classic western High Noon (1952). It is high noon in space and there is no avoiding that fact. Where High Noon was seen by some as an allegory against blacklisting and McCarthyism, Outland has no such links. What Outland does deal with though is the loss of identity experienced by those at the bottom of the corporate pyramid. O’Neil’s struggle in the movie isn’t just about solving the crime or finding the bad guy. It is about proving his worth. More importantly, proving it to himself. To paraphrase the character in the movie, he doesn’t want to play his rotten little part in the rotten machine any more. In this way Outland is lucky to have Sean Connery in the role. He manages to convince as an intelligent Everyman, a man capable of action but not an invincible hero. He is alone and vulnerable, and he might just lose. Connery managed to bring some real humanity to a role that may have been little more than an ass-kicking action hero in less capable hands. Connery is also helped by a quality supporting cast. A group of actors who are all vaguely familiar and more than capable of portraying cynical mineworkers at the arse-end of space. Peter Boyle as Mark Sheppard and Frances Sternhagen as Lazarus are standouts who are more than a match for Connery on screen. The rest of the supporting cast manage to convey a sense of realism, with minimal dialogue, glances and facial expressions, which almost let you forget you’re watching something set on Jupiter’s most volcanic moon.

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It is the setting and production of Outland which set it apart from so many other science fiction movies. While perhaps too bleak for some it is completely believable and very few of the special effects have dated. In fact the clunky buttons, oversized switches and CRT monitors add to the feeling of this being a low-rent mining colony and not the polished, up-market space travel of Star Trek. The director, Peter Hyams, had wanted to make a western but in the early 80s, westerns were on the way out and science fiction was very much on the way in. He had already made Capricorn One in 1978 and would make the sequel to Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), called 2010: The Year We Make Contact three years later. 2010 is also very much worth watching, although it will be forever over-shadowed by its predecessor. It is a great near-future space exploration movie. Hyams often acts as his own cinematographer but in Outland he cooperated with Stephen Goldblatt. While making the movie they pioneered a technique called Introvision. Introvision is an alternative to bluescreen matting which allows characters to move and act in front of three layers of miniature background. This added considerably to what was possible in terms of depth and scale of sets using traditional special effects. This also contributes a lot to the feeling of claustrophobia which the film induces. Many scenes, including a standout foot chase, were designed to show the scale of hundreds of humans jammed together in a small mining colony on the edge of space. Another major contribution to the atmosphere of the movie is a score by Jerry Goldsmith. Reminiscent of his score to Alien but still with its own identity.

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Outland suffers from comparisons to both Alien and High Noon. In both cases this is unavoidable but in both cases it is a little unfair. Alien and High Noon are such pillars of movie history that a sci-fi Sean Connery vehicle is unlikely to emerge from their collective shadows. However, Outland is a good film in its own right. It has rounded, down-to-earth characters. It has a believable setting with a great eye for detail. The story is familiar, classic but with a few new elements just to mix it up a little. It is a decent detective story with a few solid action scenes, a hate-able villain and a hero you want to root for. Outland is well worth a couple of hours of your time partly because it deals with such familiar and timeless themes. The third act is in some ways reminiscent of Die Hard (1988) but in space. As an Everyman hero is pushed to his limit, the payoff in the end is personal but worth the journey.

 

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