Sci-Fi Sundays is back and this week Dawn Dabell takes a look at Outland (1981) starring Sean Connery, Peter Boyle and Frances Sternhagen.
Outland is seen by many as High Noon (1952) in space. Both films feature a marshal protecting a community which turns its back on him in his time of need, leaving him to face the ‘bad-guys’ with little-to-no help. Director Peter Hyams had expressed interest in making a western film but, by the 80s, it was a genre which was dying out. More film-makers were jumping on the sci-fi bandwagon, made popular with films like Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Alien and the like. Instead, Hyams decided to move the action to outer space, and the script he penned became this ‘space western’ starring Sean Connery.
Humans have colonised Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, and are mining it for its natural resources. Federal marshal O’Niel (Connery) is there to keep the peace, but he is troubled by a number of violent episodes involving some of the miners. His deputy Montone (James B. Sikking) warns him not to delve too deeply into the occurrences, and this warning is further reinforced by the mine boss Shephard (Peter Boyle) who does not take kindly to O’Niel’s apparent moral uprightness.
Helped by the base doctor Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel gradually uncovers a drug ring on the moon. The miners are being supplied with a drug which enables them to handle an extraordinary workload in a single shift. The problem is that the drug eventually sends users over the edge, inducing them to paranoid and psychotic behaviour. O’Niel refuses to turn a blind eye, but none of the people on the moon are willing to stand with him in his fight against injustice. When he learns that Shephard has called for some hitmen to come to eliminate him, he realises he is going to have to stand alone in his fight against the bad guys.
Many people were used to seeing Connery in lightweight and fun roles, such as the James Bond movies. Here, however, he takes on a more serious role, portraying an officer of the law. He doesn’t charm his way out of situations, quipping at every opportunity and bedding numerous beautiful women throughout his adventures; he plays it straight and there’s a lot of depth and dimension to his character.
Connery is a fine actor and can be depended upon to put in a worthy performance. This is no exception: he is very believable as the stubborn marshal unwilling to turn a blind eye just because everyone else does. He is a man of integrity, determined to take down the bad-guys regardless of the odds against him. Boyle is equally fine as the corrupt general manager who puts the financial success of the mining operation before the welfare of the workers.
Sternhagen is perfectly cast in her role: her line delivery is spot-on with the right level of dry humour thrown into the mix. Her character is clearly a woman who has seen a lot over the years and is bored by her day-to-day life on the outpost. She’s not a woman who is easily scared like the rest of the community; she is willing to stand up against wrong-doers and this is an appealing aspect of her strong performance here. Credit has to be given to the casting department – most films would have seized the opportunity to have a young, busty woman cast in the role of Dr. Lazarus, even if she was miscast, but here they went with Sternhagen, a woman in her fifties at the time who plays the role with acerbic wit and world-weary cycnicism. This helps to make Outland a more serious toned sci-fi film, one which doesn’t see Connery bedding every available female as would have been the case in his Bond days. It’s quite a dark and serious film, and Sternhagen fits in perfectly.
Hyams deals with any scenes of nudity with care. Early in the film, there is a scene featuring a hooker who is being attacked by one of the miners. Many directors would have handled this scene with the naked female flailing all over with her breasts and even her pubic hair becoming the focus of the scene, with little focus on the perpetrator. Instead, Hyams makes sure the audience’s attention remains where it should… on the face of the miner. It’s a clever scene which cuts back and forth between the marshal, the hooker, the flipped-out miner and the deputy. Hyams resists sensationalism and sleaze, helping to keep the plot more tense and dramatic; there’s nothing here to relieve the building tension… even the gyrating naked bodies seen under a blue light in the mine-base bar are merely background and almost clinical in their display. Nothing about this space-station is erotic, nothing is inviting, nothing is beautiful or glamorous: the mine is stark and depressing, a place where people ‘exist’ rather than ‘live’. Even the marshal’s own wife and son leave for earth, leaving him feeling more isolated and alone than ever. We in the audience can sympathise with O’Niel’s isolation: the clanging metal sets, although wonderful, place an emphasis on the cold, uninviting, warren-like existence of the miners.
In 1981 a photonovel was released – Outland: The Movie Novel – and the film was also novelised by author Alan Dean Foster. Foster had worked on a number of novelisations in the sci-fi genre including Alien and The Black Hole. Rumours of a remake was announced by Warner Brothers in 2009 but to date no more information has surfaced.
Outland is a very solid example of a ‘space western’, far better than less successful example of the sub-genre such as the misfiring Moon Zero Two. Connery holds it together well, and there are several exciting scenes including the requisite Hyams chase sequence (a foot chase through the living quarters between Connery and a suspect). Jerry Goldsmith’s score is eerily evocative and the film’s pace is good. Thumbs up from me!
MOM Rating: 7/10