Outland (1981) Blu Ray & DVD & Digital Download (Warner)
Outland is set in the distant future in a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons named Io. Sean Connery plays law officer Marshall William O’Neil, who has just arrived at this remote location to work for one year, with his long-suffering wife Carol (Kika Markham) and son Paul (Nicholas Barnes) in tow.
While company boss Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) assures O’Neil that the place is fairly quiet, he asks him to “give a little room” to the miners so they can enjoy the nightlife and hookers that come as compensatory perks for being cooped up in such a hellhole. However, when a number of the workers start going insane - two gruesomely commit suicide via decompression, while another terrorises a hooker in her room - the singleminded lawman is keen to get to the bottom of things. While he enlists the help of his second-in-command Montone (James B. Sikking) and the colony’s doctor Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), it soon becomes clear that his investigations are putting him in serious danger.
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Stylistically, Outland fits snugly into the dark, cynical anti-industrial-complex sci-fi of Ridley Scott’s two classics: Alien (1979) and Bladerunner (1982). Indeed, both Outland and Bladerunner were produced by The Ladd Company, founded by Alan Ladd Jr. However, the director of the former film wasn’t Scott: it was Peter Hyams, who had then recently enjoyed some success of his own with a semi-SF paranoia thriller named Capricorn One (1977). Arguably, Outland also fits into the “paranoia” part of the Venn diagram in company with his earlier film; there are plenty of shots following various characters conducting their shady business behind O’Neil’s back, and keeping their heads down in a feigned lack of acknowledgement as soon as our main protagonist steps into the colony’s shadow-heavy nightclub.
Unfortunately, unlike Scott’s two films, Outland isn’t particularly great. The main issue is that the script is rather weak and doesn’t really do much that’s new with its well-used Western-style trope (a singleminded lone gunman standing against the otherwise corrupt establishment he is working for) beyond the cosmetic change of setting it in space. There are moments of pure silliness as decompression causes various characters to swell up like a balloon and explode (which ups the gore quotient, but is physically inaccurate when it occurs in the scenario seen here of characters moving from an atmosphere into a vacuum), and, moreover, one such death occurs when a supposedly professional assassin is stupid enough to fire at a target in front of a window, thus breaking it and getting sucked out. There were similar moments in the later Total Recall (1990), but they were more forgivable in that context since the tone was wilfully comic-bookish (and potentially taking place in an imagined reality). Here the film’s feel is otherwise rather serious and striving heavily for realism, hence making such moments stick out like a sore thumb.
Still, as a straightforward action-thriller with a cool setting, Outland - while a little slow at times - works well enough. The production design, mixing clinically-white futurism with soul-shattering, prison-like industrial metal environments is impressive, and is augmented by generally excellent miniatures and process work. Some of the technology on display now represents a rather dated view of what the future would look like, but then again that’s an issue with most science fiction films through the ages. There are some exciting action sequences, in particular a lengthy foot chase at the halfway mark that’s well-captured via some lengthy tracking shots, and the elaborate cat-and-mouse antics of the final 20 minutes as O’Neil uses his resourcefulness to outwit the bad guys in spectacular fashion. The orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith is suitably rousing, and the performances by Sean Connery and Frances Sternhagen rise above the cliches. The pair have a genuine (platonic) chemistry in their scenes together, playing a pair of gruff professionals who gradually form a bond of mutual respect by standing up to each other’s headstrong attitudes.
Eagle-eyed buffs of British character actors might spot a few in smallish early roles, including Clarke Peters as one of the law officers, Steven Berkoff as a miner who turns psychotic, and P.H. Moriarty as one of the armed hitmen during the finale.
Outland is a rather average film, but passes a quiet evening in an enjoyable fashion - especially if you are a fan of sci-fi films from this early 1980s period.
Runtime: 109 mins
Dir: Peter Hyams
Script: Peter Hyams
Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking, Kika Markham, Clarke Peters, Steven Berkoff, John Ratzenberger, P.H. Moriarty
The film’s lavish production design looks fantastic on this Blu Ray. Those luminous electronic displays that are so archetypical to early 80s sci-fi shine brightly and colourfully here. The higher definition does highlight the artificiality of some of the process work here, but it’s only really noticeable in a couple of shots.
The stirring Jerry Goldsmith orchestral score and melodramatic dialogue come across with a larger-than-life intensity, without losing clarity in the process. The presentation is dramatic and lively, although there is some audible crackle during the theme playing over the end credits.
Audio Commentary by Peter Hyams
Director Hyams isn’t much of a motormouth - he’s rather modest and soft-spoken - and he gives the audience time to listen to many of the best pieces of spoken performance by Connery and Sternhagen. What he does say, however, is informative and enjoyable. He makes no bones about the fact that he was making a western transplanted to space, and that he was influenced heavily by Ridley Scott. He talks extensively about the actors, the film’s lighting and the “Introvision” process that was used for many of the effects shots near the end (this was the first film to use this process). He also reveals that one of the bad guys, called “Nicholas Spota” in the script, was named after his father-in-law, whom he describes as “one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met”.
The only other extras here are some lobby cards and a trailer.
The film is alright, the audio-visual presentation is excellent. It’s a pity there aren’t more extras on the disc apart from the admittedly decent commentary; a film like this could have at least done with a “behind the scenes” doc or two to show how the elaborate sets and effects were put together.