(1981) Written and directed by Peter Hyams; Starring: Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle, James Sikking and Clarke Peters; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“…What appealed to me about making it in outer space, and making it really a western, was the frontier aspect of the western, more like what Deadwood is to the western, as opposed to what The Searchers is to the western.” – Peter Hyams (from DVD commentary)
Many of the best science fiction films are about asking the big questions, dealing with lofty issues that confront our species and our place in the cosmos. While this is true to a great extent, sometimes we just want to see some people explode in the vacuum of space. Fortunately, Outland has us covered. Writer/director Peter Hyams’ film is unabashedly a western in sci-fi clothing, but it’s a winning combination, accompanied by another terrific Jerry Goldsmith score.
The harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Jovian moon Io* serves as the backdrop for Outland’s story. The residents of a company-owned mining complex work round the clock to meet their quota of extracting valuable minerals. William T. O’Niel (Sean Connery) is the colony’s newest marshall, and quickly discovers all isn’t right. Some of the miners are cracking under the pressure, and the numbers are more than mere coincidence would suggest. His snooping doesn’t sit well with the colony’s director Sheppard (Peter Boyle), who only wants to preserve the status quo and get his fat bonus check. When O’Niel persists in his investigation, he graduates from a nuisance to a liability, targeted for elimination by hired assassins. The tension mounts as the hours and minutes tick off until the next shuttle arrives, with the killers onboard.
* Fun Fact: According to Hyams, he originally intended the film to be titled Io, but it was changed to avoid confusion with the number “10.”
Sean Connery is convincing in his portrayal of O’Niel, as someone who seems to be the last honest man. He’s earnest, but never appears self-righteous in his quest for justice. His zeal for his new position doesn’t carry over to his wife Carol (Kika Markham), who’s less than thrilled with her husband’s new assignment, and ready to jump on the next shuttle back to Earth. Her predictable departure is a convenient way to get her out of the film so Connery can do what he does best, kick butt. His fight against company-sanctioned corruption becomes a solitary one when he discovers his team members are paid to look the other way. Connery doesn’t have to say a word to convey his irritation. With only a raised eyebrow or a nod, he makes it clear there’s no time for anyone’s bullshit.
While Mr. Connery is very good, Frances Sternhagen wins the prize for her standout performance as the cynical and sarcastic Dr. Lazarus. As a self-acknowledged burnout who’s “one accident away from a malpractice suit,” she’s there to help the residents with their standard broken bones and scrapes, and not question things too much. With O’Niel’s prodding, she discovers a powerful amphetamine* in a dead miner’s system, which enables them to work longer and harder before their brain is fried. Sternhagen infuses some much-needed humor into the film, and provides a nice counterpoint to O’Niel, with her own brand of intelligence and courage.
* Another Fun Fact: According to Hyams in the DVD commentary, one of his trademarks is naming criminals after family members. The drug smuggler featured in the film, Nicholas Spota, gets his name from Hyams’ brother-in-law Nick and father in law’s last name, Spota.
The optical effects hold up quite well, from the stark beauty of Io’s moonscape in the shadow of Jupiter, to the detailed mining complex.* Outland also has the distinction of being the first film to employ the Introvision process, which combined a live actor with footage of a model. Outland follows in the tradition of films like Silent Running and Alien, depicting space habitats with a more “lived in” look, rather than the pristine, sterile environment found in many earlier science fiction films. Philip Harrison’s outstanding production design favors functionality over aesthetics. The stacked, cramped living quarters for the miners look appropriately claustrophobic. Other details, such as a heavy pressure door and collapsible corridors appear to do what they’re designed to do. John Mollo’s practical costume design reflects the ethos of the production design, made for utility, not fashion. The mining colony residents wear t-shirts and caps, which is probably much closer to the reality of the future, compared to broad-shouldered tunics with capes (with all due respect to Things to Come) or itchy spandex onesies. Hyams added another layer of believability with color coding for the hats, uniforms and space suits, to indicate the division of labor.
* Another Fun Fact: In order to make the complex’s exterior set look bigger, diminutive actor Deep Roy stood in for Connery in some of the space suit scenes.
Hyams doesn’t let scientific accuracy get in the way of a good story, with regard to the effects of a zero-pressure environment on the human body. It’s a foregone conclusion that people wouldn’t actually explode when exposed to outer space, but there’s something perversely satisfying about seeing a few of the characters come to nasty ends. If you wanted to get nitpicky, you could assert the assassins could have used something more futuristic and less messy than conventional firearms (shooting up a multi-billion dollar space facility with shotguns can’t be a good idea). There are plenty of ways they could have dispatched O’Niel without gunfire, but that would be missing the point. The guns add an anachronistic touch, fitting nicely into the old west motif, as do the saloon doors featured in the film.
Some critics have denigrated Outland as nothing more than “High Noon in outer space,” but the film never pretends to be something it’s not. Some SF purists may argue that a story isn’t really science fiction if it could be told through a different genre, but Outland exists somewhere between both worlds as a hybrid western. It’s safe to assume our future will involve using technology to exploit nature, and corporate greed will be alive and well for generations to come. My advice: Don’t get hung up on labels. Relax and enjoy this damn fine piece of entertainment.
* If you want to split hairs, Hyams didn’t consider Outland to be a science fiction film, but a “science feasible film.”