Feb 21st: “Outland” (1981)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
By the early 80s, you never expect to see Sean Connery doing anything other than James Bond. It wasn’t until after Outland that he really started to shed that suit, shirt and tie, and get recognised for a wider body of work. In the Name of the Rose was his big shake-out role and after that, The Hunt For Red October put him into the thriller, action genre which served him well in the 90s. But I like to think that Outland had a lot with his turn away from Bond. It was a strange category of movie that blends western into a futuristic thriller, much as it had done for Alien’s relationship with the haunted house hammer horror connection.
Outland does seem to fit into a bigger universe, and we’re not just talking about the aesthetics that relate to both 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and ofcourse, the mother of all space age monster movies, Alien. But why did Outland not do so well at the box office? Was it because fantasy was often associated with anything relating to space? It seems the fantasy did wash away some of the idea of what science fiction, and the future speculation of the human race could have been. Grounded as this film is, it still packs a punch, and those misguided from this film can take it from me, it is worth taking a chance with. Just don’t remove your helmet.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Outland is High Noon in space. It is also referred to as being a film set very much within the same space and time of Alien. Where Alien had the tag “In Space, no-one can hear you scream.” Outland moved to a more internalised enemy. “Even in space, the ultimate enemy is still man.”
The latter could very well be the same for Alien, for it is the human element that brought about the situation. The alien in that film was nothing more than a creature of habit. A predator without a quarrel.
In Outland, the threat is directly at the behest of mankind. Set on a mining facility on Jupiter’s larger moons, Io, we are immediately immersed in a dark and grimy world of human’s initial conquest into space. Resources are key to the future of human expansion, and it seems, in order to ensure that the work is done quickly; drugs are smuggled in by an underground traffic ring, and are passed onto workers to optimise their working abilities.
Unfortunately, unlike uppers, Pro Plus or other caffeine related study aid drugs, this highly illegal substance knows no limits, and neither do the men who use them. After several incidents involving one man removing his helmet in space, another taking his own life, the mining station’s Marshall, O’Niel, played by Sean Connery, raises the alarm and begins investigating. What he discovers goes deep, and some very prominent and powerful people don’t want O’Neil to interfere. In fact, those who run the facility appear to be in on the racket, and O’Neil finds himself more or less alone in his quest to put an end to the illegal activities once and for all.
This is a very effective film, despite it being very much a product of its time. This film was made barely a year after the release of Alien, which was no doubt on the table when it came to what the studio wanted. The world that Ridley Scott created made money, and people wanted to see space as lived in and edgy. It is not surprising that Peter Hyams — the director who in 1977 brought out the science fiction movie, Capricorn One — went on to direct Outland, and several years later, brought the very same vision and aesthetic to 2010: The Year We Make Contact — known as the hugely ignored sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The oily rag visual style is all part of the same universe, and there have even been essays exploring the notion that these films are very much connected.
Like “2010” this film was mostly ignored, seen only by those already fascinated with the dystopian future and cyber punk era of 80s cinema. It barely broke even at the box office and was given very mixed reviews by critics. Quite simply, there was much expectation that this film would be wall-to-wall action. This is often a misconception about science fiction as a whole. Once Star Wars came out, the very idea of space simply being a setting for drama — as it is used in films like Solaris and Silent Running — was confusing to mainstream audiences.
In fact, I recall Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris VHS tape being thrown about the room by students who, having come off a decade of action space opera, didn’t like the subtle low-key diet that was being presented to them.
It seems that nuance is a hard concept for many, as it seems to be the thing that trips good movies up that are deemed ‘too dull’ for those who expect too much.
This film has a great atmosphere, and Sean Connery is cast well against Peter Boyle and the hard boiled yet always fun to watch, Frances Sternhagen. Curious to note, that if we’re going to talk about crossovers, we can also add that both Frances Sternhagen and John Ratzenberger — who both appear in this movie — played as mother and son in Cheers.
The music came from a very frustrated Jerry Goldsmith, who did not have a fun time scoring this film — apparently noting that the film lacked characters with a strong sense of humanity. The score is however one of his better efforts, so it could be said that a little pressure and frustration can bring about great work.