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In the commentary track found on the Blu-ray for Outland, writer-director Peter Hyams declares that star Sean Connery is so compelling that even if a scene is dull, his onscreen presence will keep things interesting. Luckily, this sci-fi thriller offers little in the way of lag time. An edgy re-creation of High Noon in outer space, set on a titanium mining station on the Jupiter moon of Io, this 1981 film combines the industrial set design popularized by Alien with the dramatic elements of a classic western.
When Hyams made Outland, the western had fallen out of Hollywood’s favor. As he wanted to work in the genre, Hyams simply set his dark tale off world in the future, in which a determined marshal seeks to stop the illicit trade of a synthetic drug that helps workers exponentially increase their productivity while driving many to acts of suicide or homicidal rage. Unlike the space operas of the time, the heaviest weaponry available are shotguns; no laser blasters to be found anywhere. This isn’t a gleaming, dazzling future; it’s a dingy, gritty world where people are contracted for soulless jobs whose only reward is the money.
As the new lawman in town, Federal Marshal William O'Niel (Connery) stands up to corporate thug Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle), the ruthlessly ambitious general manager smuggling in the contraband. The average Io grunt has a crappy job on a crappy planetary outpost where all there is to do is work hard, get drunk or high, and sleep with hookers. O'Niel’s wife absconds with their young son early in the drama to flee to a normal life on Earth, weary of being trapped in terrible domicile after terrible domicile thanks to her husband’s spotty career. And O'Niel’s only ally in the impending showdown with hired guns is Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), a cranky but well-meaning doctor who helps him hone in on the mysterious drug trade.
The above breakdown might not sound like the best sales pitch for this underappreciated sci-fi saga, but Hyams knew how to make a compelling futuristic drama. The opening sequence instantly grabs you as a paranoid worker (a mustache-less John Ratzenberger) imagines a spider is crawling up his suit and cuts the hose to his air supply trying to escape it. Subsequently his head explodes, eyes popping out onto his helmet faceplate. (This was my first scene watching an R-rated movie as a kid; needless to say I was freaked out for the rest of the day.) The tension rises as O'Niel gradually uncovers Sheppard’s insidious machinations and methods. The marshal is a simple character: he wants to right a terrible wrong, despite the fact that no one else around him cares. And Connery sells it.
Outland is a familiar tale enlivened and enhanced by some great elements. Jerry Goldsmith serves up an ominous, atmospheric score, which is supported by the Oscar-nominated sound design. Production designer Phillip Harrison and art director Malcolm Middleton create a sterile, metallic environment for the mining colony that allows Hyams and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt plenty of room to roam with the camera. It also makes one understand why people might need to do drugs to mentally escape such cold artifice. To top it all off, John Stears’ visual effects are stunning.
While not a box office smash, Outland became a staple of pay TV at the time and earned some critical accolades, among them one from Vincent Canby at the New York Times. And its cult status has remained strong, with rumors of an unnecessary remake surfacing in recent years.
The film ultimately became a great calling card for Hyams, who went on to direct 2010, Running Scared, Timecop, and End Of Days. It was also a great role for Connery, who had left James Bond behind him a decade earlier (and wouldn’t reprise 007 in Never Say Never Again for another two years). As Marshal O'Niel, Connery is commanding yet vulnerable, a man in over his head, which makes his final stand against Sheppard’s goons that much more tense.
Bryan Reesman is a veteran entertainment journalist and longtime contributor to Playboy magazine. His favorite sci-fi films include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, and Crossworlds. He recently contributed to the books The Art Of Metal and Classic Rock Posters.