Outland was one of the first AA rated movies I ever saw (which is now an obsolete rating in the UK). I remember that I was expecting the worst because the trailer implied that there was at least one exploding head featured during the film. Turns out there were two. Anyway the movie made a strong impression upon me at the age thirteen and I have revisited it numerous times since its release. I recently discovered that Outland had been given a Blu-ray release from Warner Brothers and decided to watch it once again but this time with a more critical eye rather than a nostalgic one.
The story is very straight forward being essentially a western in outer space. Federal Marshal O’Neil is beginning a year’s tour of duty at a major mining facility on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. After a spate of suicides and random violent crimes, the Marshal discovers that General Manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) is distributing drugs among the work force to increase productivity. The side effect of long term addiction leads to psychosis. Unable to trust his fellow officers the Marshal find his only ally is the facilities cynical chief medical officer, Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen). O’Neil’s investigations inevitably lead to him to a show down with two contract killers.
You would have to be an extremely causal viewer not to see shades of High Noon in this movie. But unlike the westerns of the 50’s with their sanitised depiction of the West, this frontier in space is grimy, seedy and altogether plausible. Writer/Director Peter Hyams creates a credible working environment, similar to that of an oilrig. Everything is functional and basic. There is no privacy or glamour. The future is run by big corporations and driven by return on investment. It’s a bleak and rather all too familiar world.
What elevates Outland above the standard of similar genre products from the time is the universally high standard in every aspect of the production. The script is tight, honest and plays to the strengths of the lead actors. The dynamic between Connery and Sternhagen is very plausible, with dry quips, cynicism and grudging respect. The sets are claustrophobic and depressingly credible. The technology on display hasn’t dated too much. Hyams did not make the usual genre mistakes such as exotic costumes and weaponry. The miniature work by Martin J. Bower is outstanding and the Introvision front projection effects works still look acceptable.
Peter Hyams has always been somewhat underrated as a director. All the hallmarks of his previous works are present in Outland. There is a well-crafted chase scene, the mythical “good cop” and corporate/political conspiracies. Of course the movie is not without fault. You can easily question some of the science and there are a few plot wholes. However, the sheer presence of Sean Connery overshadows these minor quibbles. The movie is a showcase for his acting talent which is often overlooked. Outland also demonstrates that can get a lot of mileage from a classic tale and if you are sufficiently inventive. By not involving aliens in this vision of the future and showing that man’s worst enemy in space is himself, the tale maintains credibility.
Outland still remains a finely crafted, character driven thriller. It transcends the usual limitations that some studios impose upon the genre to be a superior piece of film making. There’s not a slack moment in the narrative which is perfectly paced. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the atmospheric score by Jerry Goldsmith. Warner Brothers Blu-ray transfer is very good and the movie looks crisp and clear. Obsessive movie fans you can finally do a comprehensive frame by frame analysis of P.H. Moriarty’s head explosion. For a movie that is thirty one years old, it holds up very well and is still solid entertainment.