is another weird one, neither fish nor fowl. It’s another transitional fossil, from a time when Star Wars had not yet begun to ruin everything. Not that it didn’t do some good. Before the first Death Star’s destruction (spoiler alert), sci-fi films were exclusively B-listers, unfairly ghettoized, not for the content of their character, but for their budget’s relative cheapness.
Then came Spielberg. And then came George Lucus. And then came a whole horde of big budget sci-fi pictures, most long-since forgotten. So when, after taking a figurative dump on The Rock and a literal one on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, someone requested I review a “good” Sean Connery film, I immediately thought of this one.
No, wait; that’s a lie. At first I thought of Dragonheart. But I’ve already written an intro for Outland and if I start flip-flopping now, terrorists will nerve gas San Francisco. I should know. I’m the guy with the nerve gas.
This is former Art Student/CBS News anchor Peter Hyams’ eighth film, and Hyams so obviously loved the film High Noon he decided to remake it…IN SPACE! Specifically, Jupiter’s volcanic moon, Io…which the Blinking Title Card helpfully informs us is pronounced “Eye-oh.” At this point, I turned to my hostages and said, “Do you think they put that there at the last minute because stupid people honestly couldn’t figure out how to pronounce the damn moon’s name? Was I the only kid who read Greek mythology?”
The hostages stared at me blankly. A few of them blinked. Finally, a housewife from the Palisades raised her hand and waited to be called on. She admitted that she’d mistaken it for either the number “10” or the first two letters of the word “low.” Turns out that was as much of an issue thirty years ago and “Io” was, in fact, this movie’s original title.
I mention this only to let modern SF fans know what our beloved genre was up against back in the early-80s. The Empire Strikes Back was not quite one and Blade Runner wouldn’t come out until the year later. On the other hand Outland opened up 1981’s Summer Season with its Memorial Day Weekend premiere…
Huh. What’s this strange feeling in my gut? Is that…nostalgia? Eww! Fuckin’ gross. Just because 2011’s Memorial Day Weekend movie was…The Hangover Part II…is no reason to…actually, I take that back. Hangover Part II‘s so atrocious, you can use it to justify pretty much anything. After that, nothing is true and everything permitted. Why do you think I’m holding all these hostages?
Outland takes place inside Con-Amalgamated titanium mining station number twenty-seven. We begin the film well informed about Con-Am, thanks to the Bleeping Title Cards download into our movie from the Io Board of Tourism. We learn how many people call Con-Am 27 home, how the labor pool breaks down (they keep this thing running with less than two hundred maintenance workers? Yeah, right. Aircraft carriers employ more grease monkeys than this place) and how often the resupply shuttle arrives (once a week). Out of all these facts, only this last becomes relevant, but we’re not supposed to know that yet.
Instead, we’re supposed to marvel at all the beautiful composite job the special effects team pulled off. This allows Hyams’ camera to follow an elevator down from Con-Am 27 proper, into the Stygian abyss where they spend a year (per tour) of their lives. As the elevator opens, illuminating what’s still to this day (even on DVD) an oppressive, murky darkness, Hyams pushes back from the emerging space-suited miners, their walkway and the shelf of rock it’s perched on. Soon the miners shrink to a size I’d have to measure in pixels and Hyams slowly pans left, unveiling the mine’s true dimensions. These people are figurative ants and this is their hive: a craggy, cavernous waste with a wall of floodlights so large they look like an underground skyscraper in place of the far-too-distance sun.
Hyams used a technique called IntroVision front projection to create these shots. As the name implies, it’s the opposite of rear projection, allowing the director to layer several shots into the same image through the magic of projectors and reflective surfaces. No long post-production time, exaggerated gain, or creepy blue halos you sometimes (hell, around here that should read “more often than not”) find in movies utilizing front projection’s major competitor, the bluescreen matte.
Hyams uses it to zoom through his fantastical sci-fi dystopia and find the most mundane thing he can: two working class Joes, bitching about their boss. See, the floor in Mine Shaft #8’s been creeping lately and…No, wait. Unlike some of the other small planetary bodies in our solar system, this Io remains gratefully daikaiju-free. Instead, a rash of psychotic breakdowns and apparent suicides are currently sweeping the station, so I’m sure we’ll have plenty of conflict to go around…though some giant bugs would improve things.
Instead, we find Federal Marshal William T. O’Neil (Sir Sean, fresh from his role as the Scientist in Meteor) getting ready for work. He kisses his wife (Kika Markham) goodbye, threatens to abuse his son (Nicholas Barnes), and enjoys a day of public, verbal humiliation at the hands of station Shop Steward Mark Sheppard (a very-bearded Peter Boyle – no razors on Io, I guess).
As the Shop Steward, Sheppard more-or-less runs the mine like his private fiefdom.
Sheppard: Let me tell you what you’re dealing with here. I run a franchise. The company hired me to dig as much ore out of this hellhole as possible. My hookers are clean, some of them are good looking. My booze isn’t watered. The workers are happy. When the workers are happy, they dig more ore. They get paid more bonus money. When they dig more ore, the company’s happy. When the company’s happy, I’m happy.
O’Neil: Sounds wonderful.
Sheppard: Nothing here’s “wonderful”! It works… that’s enough.
“Enough” for a man like you, maybe, Joe. But now you’re cooking with 007 stock, reduced down to its purest form: the frontier lawman with his civilized values, shipped to the ass-end of civilization. Yep. A real fish out of water. Speaking of which, someone just took the elevator down to mine-level…without a suit.
Sure, some people just can’t hack it out here (IN SPACE!!!!) and, on occasion, someone comes down with the DTs. But two in two days would set anyone’s Cop Senses tingling. After some cajoling, the station’s resident Bones, Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), tells O’Neil there’ve been over forty suicides in the last two months. No autopsies, naturally, and the company ordered the bodies shipped back quick and quiet-like. Number 27’s a high-yield op. Wouldn’t want to jeopardize the franchise, now, would we? After all, in the last two months, this dump’s broken all previous productivity records…
You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to figure this shit out. Sheppard ships in the drugs, the workers buy them, mine more ore, get paid more money, and use their bonus to turn around and buy more drugs. Dr. Lazarus’ pre-digital computer (and check out the wall-mounted body scanner) spits out some multi-syllabic name, but c’mon, Peter: we’ve both spent some time hanging around Art students. I know bad speed when I see it, and this is some bad shit. We know this because it comes in little plastic pouches, like Capri Sun. Except it’s the color of blood. (Also like Capri Sun…which I’ve just decided to stop drinking. Last thing I need’s an imaginary spider attack.)
Topping all this off, O’Neil comes home to find his wife and son have jumped world. They caught the last shuttle out to “The Space Station” where the plan to catch a connector to Earth. As a distraught Carol O’Neil explains this in via vlog, she just can’t take it anymore. The years of frequent reassignment, recycled air, and creeping claustrophobia have finally gotten to her. And while breaking up via message (be they voice, text or video) is always a major dick move, I applaud the movie for throwing in this little point.
This is what sci-fi can be when its creators set their so-called minds to something other than CGI backgrounds crammed full of distracting, indecipherable shit. From now on, whenever people ask me what I mean by “character-driven SF stories” I can point them to Carol O’Neil’s breakup speech in Outland and say, “Pretty much that. Now that stop asking.”
Outland‘s first half is a half-hour short about a cop’s marriage falling apart, punctuated every seven minutes or so by the kind of grisly, space-based deaths that leave you decorating walls. With no home life and no urge to visit the company hookers, O’Neil pours all of himself into a personal crusade. He will smash Sheppard’s drug ring, come hell or hard vacuum, and no amount of intimidation or Obvious Betrayals are going to stop him.
The back half of the movie’s a long game of escalation. O’Neil wins the Banter-off, so Sheppard sics some thugs on him. O’Neil jails a thug, so Sheppard has the thug killed in stir. O’Neil flushes a shipment of Space Speed, so Sheppard’s thugs leave a deputy’s corpse hanging in O’Neil’s locker. O’Neil refuses to fuck off, so Sheppard calls in some outside talent, setting up the third act’s literal ticking clock. This is a solid, professional film, full of striking imagery, carefully arranged by a director with a painter’s eye.
So why isn’t it as famous or fondly remembered as other, lesser, early-80s, cheesy sci-fi thrillers? The best answer I can come up with is, It takes all kinds to make a fandom. And if you’re a certain type of movie-watcher, Outland‘ll probably bore you to tears. In fact, during its original run, the film managed to alienate a whole swaths of the movie-goers by daring to rip-off that saintly, Gary Cooper Western, High Noon (which pissed off plenty of people in its own right, during its original run: “A Western without barfights or chase scenes? OUTRAGEOUS!” Like many saints, it only gained its title after everyone involved died.)
Like High Noon, Outland wants you to think the main conflict’s between the Marshal and the Bad Guy, here recast as an Evil Capitalist…but that’s okay. Hell, Western’s practically invented the archetype, and the movie makes it work. Sheppard’s no Carter Burke, though. There’s not a spec of slime on this guy. He never raises his voice and only directly threatens Sheppard once. Yet he carries this (in truth, secondary) conflict off by putting on an air of pure Jimmy Hoffa menace. A Blue Collar Evil, in contrast to Connery’s uniform…and everything it symbolizes. The kind of guy who’s perfect for carving kingdoms out of chaos. The kind of guy makes points with other people’s corpses.
Opposed by the kind of guy who’ll put responsibility before relatives, people before profits, and The Law before personal gain. All through this movie, O’Neil hears about how foolish he is to take a stand and oppose Sheppard. (Again, how loaded a name is that?) After all, it works. Except for the whole…ya know…driving people to suicide. That counts as “working” right? Sheppard, Dr. Lazarus, his deputies…all of them call O’Neil’s moral and ethical certitude “stupid” because Outland‘s is a future where such basic, entry-level heroism’s become patently unbelievable.
Until the end, when O’Neil sits down with Dr. Lazarus to explain the point, and where this film really diverges from High Noon (besides the whole “Jupiter’s moon” thing). Western’s are generally all about Civilization conquering a savage wilderness with Law, Order and Justice. High Noon‘s real conflict lay between the Marshall and a bunch of townsfolk too scared to stand with him against the forces of Lawlessness.
Sci-Fi dystopias, on the other hand, depict a time when Civilization extends to the stars, swallowing everything in its path. Vast and arrogant, it’s no wonder its grown corrupt, or bred corrupt men like Sheppard. Hell, thanks to Civilization’s habit of exploiting everything, “corrupt” ain’t even the right word. “Apathetic” feels better, and since mass apathy does so much to keep our world spinning right ’round, it’s no wonder I enjoy these 80s Sci-Fi flicks more than their sunny, fun-time counterparts from the ’50s. Or the big budget Bad Movies of the modern age.
Outland‘s world is a machine, with everyone trapped in their little, interlocking parts, making up a social system as rigidly stratified (in its own way) as Imperial China. It’s Prime Directive? “Whatever works,” with “works” defined as “whatever makes that proverbial PHAT cash.”
Enter a man with the insane idea of putting people’s lives ahead of resource hording. Of course he looks, sounds and acts like an alien. He’s a refuge from another time. Not the cloying, greedy, late nineteenth century, but the middle twentieth. A time when Westerns were as prevalent as Superhero movies are today. The difference being, back then, people still believed in heroes and had not yet succumbed to the tyranny of “it works.”
And if you’re thinking, Well, shit, son, that’s just the way it outta be; we can be heroes…if just for one day, then stand forth so that I may publicly embrace you as my sibling. If not…well, you probably clicked off as soon as I started over-thinking the movie’s themes. Back up top, at the level where the film meets your eyes, you’ve got a decent sci-fi thriller movie with Sean Connery playing a taciturn badass and Frances Sternhagen as…a female version of me, pretty much. Cynical, acerbic, fond of the occasional drinking binge…if she’d been the main character, this movie would be excellent and I’d be happily air-guitaring my way through it, and this review.
But I’m all too aware of modern audiences unwillingness to give slow films the time of day. At times, Outland‘s pace becomes downright glacial, and (in an unforgivable move, by modern standards) there are no twists waiting around to surprise you in the third act. It’s a country simple movie, a meat and potatoes Sci-fi Western from a time when such things were possible. If you love Alien (and love-hate Civilization) as much as I do, you’ll find a lot to chew on here. If not, go watch The Rock again.
But fair warning: if you do, these hostages won’t be going anywhere…