Monday, December 31, 2012

Outland (1981)

I saw this movie a long time ago. We’re talking back in sixth grade when I was watching anything sci-fi I could get my hands on. I remembered very little about it: people exploded and that there some guy injected himself with Kool Aid using a gun. I thought it was OK, but lacked the space battles and aliens that I craved. How does this measure up now?

O’Niel (Sean Connery) has just stared working on a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon Io. His job is to act as the sheriff for the corporate mining town, keeping the peace and making sure the miners don’t get themselves into too much trouble. Things start to go downhill almost immediately when three miners loose their marbles and kill themselves. O’Niel does a bit of digging and discovers that the miners are using a drug that increases their stamina, but slowly degrades their mind. He starts to track down the drug dealers and their source, but finds himself getting pulled into something more sinister - a conspiracy with some powerful people behind it. Now O’Niel is the target and dealing with family problems on top of it. Will the new sheriff in town be able to survive his tour into Outland?

Good Points:
  • The cast does a good job with the parts
  • The production design is a realistic used future
  • Director Peter Hyams builds the tension to a solid boiling point
Bad Points
  • The story will be familiar to anyone who’s watched High Noon
  • No aliens or spaceship battles
  • Anyone expecting an action movie will be disappointed
Transplanting a traditional western story into space works well, because all the elements slide into the genre easily enough. Connery brings a lot to the part, and provides it a nice balance of world weary and tough. Once you realize that this movie is a slow burn to the climax, it works really well. I recommend it to anyone looking for a neat sci fi flick for a movie night.

Scores (out of 5)
Visual: 4
Sound: 4
Music: 4
Script: 3
Acting: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total: 4

In Depth

To be honest I had forgotten all about this film. Then I ran into the title as I reviewed the filmography of film composer Jerry Goldsmith. I’ve been enjoying Mr. Goldsmith’s music lately and I was looking for film scores during his golden period, from around 1975 to 1985 or so. Outland popped up and it brought back a few dim memories, and IMDb did the rest.

What struck me first were the interior sets and overall design of the mining facility. The look is a gritty future, much like the starship Nostromo from Alien. It looks futuristic and yet well used and beat up. This goes for the sets, props and costumes. It creates a realistic environment that grounds the viewer and at the same time creates a bit of claustrophobia with the cramped living spaces and the overfull storage bay. It keeps the film from looking too dated (as apposed to the futuristic looks used in Logan’s Run or Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Sound design is well used in the film mixing the cold vacuum of space with a hum of electronics and machinery in the mining facility.

The score does a great job supporting the film. Goldsmith took a lean mean approach to the film, not really creating a true theme for Connery. He focuses instead on building tension and creating some excellent action music for the sequences when Connery hunts down the drug dealers. It is along the same lines as Capricorn One another film directed by Peter Hyams. You can classify it as more of a rhythmic and intense score than a melodic or sweeping score.

The script to Outland isn’t terribly original, being based off High Noon, but it utilizes the sci-fi setting pretty well. The idea of drugging the miners to give the more stamina and allowing them to get larger bonuses is intriguing. The conspiracy is believable, and shares some parallels to both Alien and Moon. But there are a few bizarre items revolving around the hit men that show up. These guys start off pretty intimidating, but they all end up making pretty stupid mistakes. You’d think men trained to kill in space would be a little more aware of their surroundings and understand that ballistic weapons may not be the best bet when confronting the target. The movie shows its western roots by not really focusing on the detective portion of the plot or the technological ideas. Instead it focuses on the sheriff and his building confrontation with the bad guys. This will disappoint those looking for a harder sci-fi or more police procedural bent.

Connery does a good job as the lead. When his wife leaves him and takes their son, you can tell he’s hurt deep, but it’s all boiling behind his tough exterior. That pressure builds as he digs deeper into the conspiracy. Connery’s performance shows all this with minimal dialogue and more with his face and eyes.

The supporting cast is solid as well with Frances Sternhagen stealing her scenes as the crotchety doctor. Her banter with Connery is excellent and you wish she was in Outland a bit more. Surprising me was Peter Boyle as the company rep for the mining corporation. I’m used to seeing him in comic roles, but here he’s a slimy jerk. With each appearance you like him less and less, and see just how oily the guy is. Boyle makes for a good toadie that you love to hate.

Peter Hyams builds the tension with skill. It starts out a little slow as he sets up the premise and creates the family situation. But once O’Niel starts digging into the case things get interesting. Hyams lets the action unfold organically, punctuating key scenes with foot chases and ambushes. The final confrontation with the hit men is where it gets good. Hyams uses editing to keep you on the edge of your seat. Keeping the pace of the hunt moving along and never letting the action get out of hand. It works well, and while it may not be a special effects spectacular it’s a solid climax.

For me, Outland fit the bill. It was entertaining and provided an interesting setting that you don’t see too much in sci-fi these days. It’s been forgotten and that’s a shame, because it’s worth checking out and revisiting. It’s nice to see practical effects and realistic sets in a sci-fi film. But it was also neat to see something a little more realistic in terms of setting. Fans of Connery will enjoy it as will anyone who’s looking for a nice piece of vintage 80’s sci-fi.

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