Friday, 26 February 2016

Outland (1981)

Outland is a 1981 British science fiction film, only it isn’t a science fiction film. It’s a western. A western in space. That’s an idea that has been done quite a number of times but Outland is about as pure an example of the concept as you’re likely to see.

Marshal William O’Niel (Sean Connery) is the newly arrived chief of security at a mining project on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. It really shouldn’t be a terribly demanding job for a lawman, the main law enforcement tasks being dealing with drunken brawls. The miners are a tough lot but there’s not a great deal of scope for criminal activity. For one thing, there’s nothing much worth stealing.

There have been a couple of odd incidents. A miner thought he was being attacked by giant spiders and in his panic tore his space suit, resulting in his death. Another miner decided to wander into a no-atmosphere zone without his pressure suit, resulting in a very messy death.

The rather weary and cynical company physician, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), assures O’Niel that these incidents are the kinds of things that happen in a place like this. It’s an environment that combines boredom with stress and loneliness and a sense of isolation so it’s inevitable that occasionally someone will crack up and do something crazy or stupid or self-destructive or try to kill themselves. Both incidents seem to be clear cases of suicide. Marshal O’Niel concedes that this is a very plausible explanation although he decides it might be worthwhile to do a little digging in the outpost’s history.

The results of this digging are, as Dr Lazarus has to admit, a little puzzling. In the past six months there have been twenty-four such incidents, compared to just two in the previous six months.

O’Niel is now determined to do some fairly thorough digging and he finds evidence of drug dealing (in a very dangerous drug indeed) and corruption on a massive scale. What he has discovered is going to be potentially very inconvenient for some powerful people, and potentially very dangerous for Marshal O’Niel. He’s going to need some allies but it soon becomes obvious that he isn’t going to find any. He’s a marked man and he’s on his own and hired killers are after him.

Peter Hyams’ screenplay is more or less a straight by-the-numbers western plot. It’s the classic western tale of the new lawman trying to clean up a corrupt town and finding himself up against a crooked rancher, with hired guns on their way in the stage coach to kill him and with the townsfolk too frightened or too apathetic to stand by the lawman. And he can’t even trust his own deputies to support him. Making the setting a mining operation on one of the moons of Jupiter instead of a frontier town in the Old West makes no difference to the story at all.

In some ways this is probably the point - to take a stock-standard western plot and give it a science fiction setting.

The characters are also stock-standard western characters and again this may well be deliberate.

Peter Hyams also directed and in this capacity proves himself to be quite competent. While there are no surprises (we know the identity of the bad guys from the start and we basically know how the plot will play out) he does build the tension quite effectively. The action scenes are reasonably well handled although the movie lacks the spectacular action set-pieces that science fiction fans tend to like.

Visually it’s quite impressive. The mining outpost has a grungy, seedy, slightly sleazy and very industrial look to it. The miniatures work is fine and the sets are excellent and they’re convincing. You won’t have any trouble believing this this is what a mining operation on Io might well look like. The costumes are equally convincing - these people look the way miners in space could be expected to look.

And guys in space suits armed with shotguns are a nice touch.

Sean Connery is less flamboyant than usual but this suits the mood of the picture and he still has charisma to burn. I wasn’t quite so sold on Peter Boyle as Sheppard, the chief bad guy - his character doesn’t quite have the necessary menace or the smoothness (or the brains) and really doesn’t seem formidable enough.

The most interesting thing about this movie is its very old-fashioned feel. It wears its old-fashioned values on its sleeve. There is corruption and betrayal but (unlike so many movies of its era) it doesn’t wallow in cynicism and nihilism. There are clearly defined good guys and bad guys. There’s no moral ambiguity. O’Niel is an old school hero. He might not be the smartest or the most efficient cop in the solar system but he’s honest and he knows his duty and he intends to do what he has to do, regardless of the price he might have to pay. His marriage has problems but that’s not because he’s not a devoted family man. The problems are simply the result of being a cop and being posted from one lousy mining outpost to another. He actually does his best to be a good husband and father. This is a movie in which the characters have to choose between right and wrong and the movie makes it clear that if you want to be able to live with yourself it’s wise to choose right rather than wrong.

Outland gets a decent anamorphic transfer on DVD, with at least a few token extras.

Outland is enjoyable enough. The action sequences aren’t wildly exciting but they’re competent and the movie has a nicely grungy look and feel. It’s basically High Noon in space. Maybe not quite top rank but still recommended.

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