ICYMI: Outland (1981)
The box office success of 1977’s Star Wars and 1979’s Alien didn’t just lead to respective billion-dollar franchises: they both became inspiration for Hollywood to find any reason to take audiences into outer space. In the case of Star Wars, it inspired the producers of the James Bond pictures to put off For Your Eyes Only until 1981 and move forward with the 1979 space adventure Moonraker (Fun Fact: at the end of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me it specifically states 007 will return in For Your Eyes Only). As for Alien, it inspired a whole decade of creature features like Horror Planet and Galaxy of Terror. Strangely enough, it also inspired one of director Peter Hyams most ambitious films.
1981’s Outland is a surprisingly faithful adaption of the classic western High Noon, only set in outer space. Story has it that Peter Hyams initially wanted to make a western, but Hollywood producers were desperate to capitalize on the success of Alien and were only interested if he could develop something set in space. Hyams came up with a screenplay that took the revered Fred Zinneman masterpiece starring Gary Cooper and set it on a distant mining colony off Jupiter. The result is an effective thriller that pays tribute to High Noon but also allows Hyams to demonstrate his visual flair that would lead to a successful career. And having Sean Connery in the lead didn’t hurt either.
The film stars the former James Bond as William T. O’Neil, a federal marshal recently assigned to the Jupiter moon colony of Io. The position is seen as something of a place holder for something more prestigious, and early on O’Neil’s wife and young son leave to begin a year long journey to Earth. The local mining company is touted for its success and high production, but O’Neil is legitimately suspicious of workers dying from drug overdoses. The mining company is headed by the wonderful sleazy Peter Boyle, who makes no bones about being corrupt and is all about any means for his workers to keep their number up. O’Neil’s staff, whose loyalties are questionable, include character actor and Hyams’ regular James B. Sikking and a pre-The Wire Clarke Peters. O’Neil also finds surprising support from the facility’s physician played by Frances Sternhagen. The two have an entertaining antagonism that develops into mutual respect.
There are very few surprises in Outland, especially if you have seen High Noon. But Outland works because of Sean Connery’s steadfast presence and the style of auteur-in-the making, Peter Hyams. Hyams, who usually works as his own cinematographer, is known for visually dark and stylishly shot films like The Star Chamber, Running Scarred, Narrow Margin, the underrated The Relic as well as two of Jean Claude Van Damme’s better vehicles Timecop and Sudden Death. Hyams lives for shadowy set-ups and any excuse for a scene lit by a solitary flashlight. Half of the fun in Outland is its’ signature Hyams-ian look, in addition to Phillip Harrison’s futuristic production design.
The film also works because of its ambitious adherence to the plot and action of High Noon. Yes, we get Connery as the solitary lawman but we also get the little moments like:
Boyle finding out very frankly that Connery cannot be bribed
Connery only able to find support from one citizen, in this case the local physician
Connery asking for help from the community only to be told “You’re supposed to protect us! It’s your job!”
The anticipation of the hired killers arriving on a shuttle
Connery spying on one of the killers from above via space walk
Connery discovering the identity of his most duplicitous deputy
Roger Ebert once stated about thrillers, “Style is a lot more important than plot. What happens isn't nearly as important as how it happens and who it happens to.” Outland would definitely fall into such a category. Not a lot happens and yet its hard to not keep your eyes pealed and ears open (there is very little dialogue in the final twenty minutes) for this very engaging, almost minimalist space thriller.