As stated in my “About Alex” section, my appreciation for film was jump started at a tender age by my mom, who was fortunate enough to be alive during the two best decades in the history of cinema, the 70’s and 80’s. One film she recommended I see a long time ago was Outland, which she described to me as a space western with elements of the detective sub-genre of action films throughout. This was about 10 years ago, but it stuck with me enough to warrant hunting it down all these years alter, and boy am I glad I did.
Outland is the story of O’Neil, a “cop”, for lack of a more appropriate term, who is sent to a titanium mining station on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. In Outland, humans have colonized some planets in our immediate vicinity, and found ways to mine for valuable ore. O’Neil has been on a bit of a troublesome streak lately, being shipped from station to station as something of a punishment for sticking his nose into business that is shady at best, but tolerated by the corporations who control the interstellar facilities. Almost immediately, O’Neil notices a disturbing pattern of increasing death and suicide among the workers, and begins to inquire about the fishy nature of the inner workings of his new found occupational locale.
While Outland has more than enough going for it to outright recommend it to even the most timid of science fiction and action fans, it’s best quality is by far its rich and refreshing acting. Peter Hyams script never insults the intelligence of the audience, and never stumbles around just spouting out space jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo in lieu of insightful and meaningful dialogue. Combine that with Sean Connerys constant brilliance and Peter Boyles effortless ability to be anything a film requires of him, and you have the cornerstones of a good movie, regardless of subject matter. Connery plays O’Niel, our under appreciated, but carefully nuanced and strong willed lead and protagonist. Connery may be at the best I’ve ever seen him in Outland, as he portrays a cunning and relentless marshall who is struggling to keep the love of his wife and son, while being torn in another direction completely by the loyalty he has to his duty. He slowly builds up his character through his actions for about 2/3rds of the film, until he unleashes his incredible talent while being questioned about his motives. Connery has the ability to make a speech not feel like a speech at all, and in Outland, he delivers a one hell of a good one all the while making it seem fluid, natural, and completely unforced. Boyle, who is on screen far less than Connery, still manages to put his stamp on both the movie and his character, and brings a sense of heft and relevance to his role, a feat many other actors simply couldn’t. Frances Sternhagen, who plays the self proclaimed “unpleasant, but not stupid” Dr. Lazerus, is the perfect match for Connery and his wit and tenacity, and offers much needed levity to a film that is wrought with realism and bleakness. James Sikking also deserves a nod here. As Montone, another member of the security detail in the facility, he plays the sympathetic but misguided polar opposite to O’Niel and his steely resolve. If you are the type of movie buff who feels action and sci-fi has seen a major drop off in core acting ability, this is the remedy for what ails you.
Peter Hyams, who wrote and directed Outland, would never go on to make a better film than this. Some of his more notable films are The Relic, Sudden Death, and Timecop, the last two being Van Damme martial arts flicks. But while his body of work maybe not shimmer like the morning sun over a lake, Outland stands as a major achievement, especially considering how damn good the thing looks for a film released in 1981. Having already touched upon his obvious talent for exceptional dialogue and writing, I will swing right into his directing ability. Hyams has brought something not many directors can to the table, and that is to craft a picture that doesn’t look overly dated, even thought it’s going on 30 years old. Timelessness in his quality imagery, composition, framing, and use of color are all here and in abundance. While the spoiled majority of modern mainstream movie goers would probably have a field day pointing out the outdated technology present aboard the “futuristic” mining complex, they would be missing out on the fact that the set design is masterfully done and full of tactile depth. Hyams uses colors sparingly, but when he does they really pop and bring attention to whatever they are intended to bring attention to. The pacing is methodical and deliberate, but never sluggish. While this is, by definition, an action picture, it is one that has a clear stranglehold on the art of making a slow burning movie that, in careful increments, ratchets up the tension at appropriate intervals. This isn’t a space shoot em up, but instead a cat and mouse game, where our hero is just as well equipped to deal with threats with his intellect and brain power, as well as his bullets. The use of miniatures is also fairly seamless, and doesn’t take away from the grimy and dystopian mood and tone of the harsh realities our species may see in the future.
Outland is a tightly wound and very taught action thriller that ascends above its general categorization of “space western.” It isn’t overly violent or bloody (save for a few nice shotgun wounds and a few other surprises I won’t ruin for you here), but what it may lack in a large body count, it makes up for with intelligence, subtlety, nuance, and superior acting and pacing. The sets and miniatures are downright gorgeous and clearly envisioned, and the whole picture seems properly detailed and devoid of any gaping plot holes or lapses in simple logic. The setting of space introduces a whole host of hazards and considerations that play beautifully alongside the focused and carefully driven narrative of cop who is either too smart, or too dumb for his own good. Outland is the kind of movie any serious film buff should hunt down and give a try, that is of course, unless you want to be left outside the airlock.