Director/writer: Peter Hyams. Starring: Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle, James B Sikking, Kika Markham. UK, 1981. Budget: $18 mln. Box office: $17-20 mln. IMDB: 6.6. RT: 58%. My rating: 3/4. Dark old-school science fiction in deep space with western flavour.
– Even in space, the ultimate enemy is man.
– If you’re looking for money, you’re smarter than you look. If you’re not, you’re a lot dumber.
– Then I’m probably a lot dumber.
– That could be very dangerous.
(a dialogue from the film)
”Outland” is quite a well-known 1981 sci-fi noir thriller, but the curious fact about it is that originally the director Peter Hyams wanted to do a western (critics often compared it to ”High Noon”… but I’m not a
movie snob critic). So what happened? Once again on this blog I have no choice but to mention Ridley Scott‘s iconic 1979 ”Alien” and its long-lasting influence, because ”Outland” was probably one of the first films trying to reproduce it. Maybe unconsciously. But it’s easy to feel. If you thought that the word ”reproduce” is too strong, then let me tell you this – often the film’s setting and the events make you feel like they’re taking place in the same universe…
What I liked. The film has an incredible production design. I mean it. Just look at these images… Just as on ‘Nostromo’, most people are over 30-40, everything is industrial, claustrophobic and looks like an old factory. Little light, little space. Heck, even the soundtrack of both movies was done by Jerry Goldsmith and bears some resemblance in its oppressive dissonance. The costumes designer John Mollo also worked on both films (he also contributed to two Star Wars movies, namely ”Episode IV: A New Hope” & ”Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”, plus dark sci-fi ”Event Horizon” that I highly recommend). Star Wars movies are also the reason why the film I’m reviewing here turned out to be set in a galaxy far, far away….
But here’s a surprise… All this actually makes ”Outland” a good old-school sci-fi. Because even if Peter Hyams was obviously influenced by ”Alien” (which he denies), he also managed to develop the his first sci-fi feature film (well, if we don’t count ”Capricorn One” which was a different story) in its own key and tell a different story, where you can clearly feels its western roots. Almost forgot – there are no aliens in this film. The real monster here is the man. That’s the difference between making a rip-off and ”inspired by…”.
Another element that makes this film something bigger is obviously Sean Connery. The Scottish actor plays a very rightous type of guy, the one that will stop at nothing to get justice. Connery starred in ”Outland” 2 years prior to his final – 7th! – James Bond movie (”Never Say Never Again”) and if you think for a while why he was initially chosen to play James Bond, it’s easy to understand why in terms of characters Connery basically owns ”Outland”. Charisma. It’s all about charisma. Just watching Connery doing some stuff captures your attention – of course, that alone doesn’t make it a good movie, but add believable characters and impressive gritty techno noir visuals and you got the recipe.
The plot. Io, Jupiter’s moon. A police marshal is sent on a remote mining colony just to discover a drug-smuggling conspiracy several days later… Wait wait wait. Why am I telling you this? Even the movie’s logline was nicely prepared here with some stunning visuals:
As for the story, it is very simple and makes you even wonder why Hyams decided to create the sci-fi setting. Basically, ”Outland” is a cop story about the good guy fighting bad guys. Hyams did several cop movies prior to directing it – ”Busting” (1974) and ”Peeper” (1976). So the real question you could ask is whether ”Outland” is a cop story with a sci-fi flavour or is it a sci-fi movie with some cop story added to it? Even if the answer may vary on what kind of movie background you come from, I’d choose the first option.
Still, Hyams subsequent directing choices confirm that he became interested in both genres, as he directed other cop movies later in the 80-s, such as ”Running Scared” (1986), ”The Presidio” (1988, also with Sean Connery), ”Timecop” (1994, again mixing sci-fi and cops), but he also did some notable science fiction productions like ”2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984) and ”Relic” (1997, sci-fi horror). Hyams also directed a pretty passable, in my opinion, ”End of Days” (1999, with Schwarzenegger and Gabriel Byrne).
What I liked less. Somewhere in the middle of the movie, however, things start to slow down a little too much. There’s a lot to enjoy, but at its core ”Outland” is very simple (which is not a problem at all), however, what is worse, so are its characters. There’s no real drama, the plot development is pretty predictable and the characters, for the most part, are just too cardboard. An exception is Frances Sternhagen who won the Saturn award as supporting actress – she was quite annoying and the whole love story subplot felt a little strained (which is no wonder, given that initially her character was supposed to be male, just like Ellen Ripley). Still, these can be considered minor complaints. We don’t really watch 80-s sci-fi movies for a deep character drama… do we?
Pathos level: very low
Final vote: 3/4
Worth watching? Even if not perfect, it is easily one of the best lesser-known 80-s science fiction movies. ”Outland” may feel like one of those movies that somehow outgrew the intention of its creators, but it was no accident – Peter Hyams is a talented director and he had a good team which guaranteed the result. I can easily recommend this both for both crime thrillers and sci-fi aficionados. Just don’t expect it to be something groundbreaking. It’s a simple movie… with gorgeous visuals, fantastic designs and bombastic Sean Conney.
Bonus 1. It’s the first time ever I saw squash (the game) in a sci-fi movie! I’m an avid squash player so that was really nice and unexpected.
Bonus 2. The film was originally supposed to be called ”Io”.
Bonus 3. A curious excerpt from Hyams’ interview (thanks to mossfilm): “Sean had to expose parts of himself that I don’t think have ever really been exposed on film before. You could see it in him, it was like a horse before the race. That kind of strain. You could see him like start to paw the ground. The day before, he just sat around, and got very quiet, which wasn’t like him. I asked if he’d like to do the close up before the master? He said okay. And you knew, somehow or other, he would put it down on the first take, you just knew it. Sometimes you can just sense it, I guess it’s just part of your job. I had a feeling that there was going to be a special kind of intensity. Sean sat down and did it. When he got done, there were camera operators and grips crying. People applauded. It was a really special moment.”