Movie: Outland (1981)

1981’s Outland really wants to be Alien.  It’s opening title sequence recalls that of the earlier film.  It takes place in a grimy, grungy mining facility on the Jupiter moon IO, but it might as well be the Nostromo.  The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, who provided that service for the other film.  Heck, I swear a bar of the opening theme here directly lifts from that other score.  This even feels a bit like a Ridley Scott film, and I just imagine his face blanching if anybody compared his work to that of Peter Hyams, the man who helmed Timecop, End of Days and 2010: The Year We Made Contact.

What is odd is this picture doesn’t want to be Alien.  Instead, it casts Sean Connery as an uncorruptible marshal who is the law in that mining operation, in what is obviously a remake of High Noon.  Having disrupted Peter Boyle’s trade in a synthetic amphetamine, the company sends two hitmen to snuff out the sheriff.  Don’t even ask if they’re going to shoot the deputy, as he was already dead about halfway through the runtime.  And that guy was even accepting the kickbacks from Boyle to look the other way.

Just like the legendary western which inspired this film, Connery will find himself squaring off against the assassins almost entirely by himself.  Heck, even his wife and son have deserted him, though that was before all the troubles.  The one person who does rise to the occasion is Frances Sternhagen, in a great performance as a brusque, onery doctor.  She steals every scene she’s in.  Consider her dialog when as she intrudes upon Connery playing racquetball solo, just to break the news he’ll be going it alone when the shuttle arrives carrying the hitmen: “That’s pretty good, playing by yourself and losing.  I’d join you, if I could play sitting down.  There seems to be a strange flu going around.  Everybody plans on being sick this Sunday.”

I’m amazed more people on the station aren’t siding with the sheriff.  After all, the drug Boyle has been pimping to them has resulted in a few suicides.  Two of these are the result of immediate loss of atmosphere, which is portrayed quite gruesomely.  That said, I would hate to see how gory a body exploding would be portrayed in such a movie today.

That leads me to the film’s special effects, which are quite solid, if not exactly top of the line, even for the time this was made.  I also had to overlook some “science facts” elements.  One minor aspect needling me long after the end credits rolled is whether somebody could feel an electric shock that happened outside their space suit.  Seems to me that, if one is wearing somebody that can protect them from the extreme temperatures of space, radiation and complete lack of atmosphere, one would not even be aware of such a thing happening to the outside of their suit.

One thing that left a strong impression on me are the sets.  This facility feels huge, though I realize most of it is just a few sections repeated and shot from different angles.  Even so, it was convincing enough that I was completely oblivious to that during a great foot chase scene.  Something that helps to sell that scene is not just the shot compositions and editing, but the desperation and exasperation of the pursuer and the pursued. 

Connery really sells that scene and, honestly, I feel he turns in one of his best performances in Outland.  He seems tired and weary throughout this, and that’s exactly as the character should be played.  I have heard some rather harsh opinions of this picture, with some saying that, between this and Zardoz, he should have given up on sci-fi completely.  While I will concede I have a soft spot (albeit, a small one) for that other film (if only because it dared to be so uniquely batshit), I genuinely love Outland.  It is neither a rip-off of Alien nor High Noon, but somehow restaging the story of the latter in the world of the former.

Dir: Peter Hyams

Starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle

Watched on Warner blu-ray