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Movie Review: Space Western OUTLAND Combines the Best of Both Worlds

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It is impossible to watch Peter Hyams’ Outland and not think of Ridley Scott’s shocker Alien.  Though Outland is more action-oriented that Scott’s horror classic, Alien‘s influence covers Outland from top to toe.  Like Alien, Outland eschews Star Wars-ian pulp for the more banal, workaday realities of space; threats of de-pressurization and floating out into the galaxy aside, Outland‘s cast of miners and bureaucrats worry more about their next paycheck and finishing work by Happy Hour than they care about discovering strange new worlds and alien life forms.  Their view of the universe hews to writer John W. Campbell’s hard sci-fi stories, which downplayed fantasy for a plausible depiction of space.

Ultimately, though, Outland departs from Alien‘s subversive, opaque ambiguities in favor of Hollywood conventions; all the grit and grime in the world can’t hide the fact that Hyams has created a rousing, entertaining Space Western, and the film’s eventual embracing of formula works far better than it should.  At the end of the day, it’s White Hats versus the Black Hats, with all the satisfying complications that showdown suggests.

Chief among the White Hats: Sean Connery’s William O’Niel, a Federal Marshal beginning his first tour on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.  O’Niel’s job consists mostly of breaking up fights between the workers who spend their days mining for titanium; he’s really just another cog in the mining corporation’s machine, a symbol of law and order, but that all changes when the miners start lashing out against each other in unusually brutal assaults.  O’Niel starts digging, and what he learns shocks him to his core: the corporation is administering unstable drug compounds to the miners that generate increased work productivity before triggering psychotic episodes.  It’s something that the company’s corporate figurehead (Peter Boyle) propagates; it’s something that O’Niel’s easygoing partner knows about (James B. Sikking); and it’s something that O’Niel is just supposed to forget.

Fat chance.

O’Niel’s resistance to tow the company line gives Outland its most potent thrills, as well as its link to that most venerated of Hollywood oaters: the great High Noon.  Threats lead to violence, which leads to Outland‘s action climax – stymied at every turn by O’Niel’s incorruptibility, Boyle’s villain orders in a team of assassins to take O’Niel out, and like Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane, O’Niel passes up every opportunity to escape.  Connery’s natural roguishness is such an asset here; on the page, O’Niel could be a one-dimensional dullard, but with James Bond at the helm, he comes off as an engaging, decent person who knows he’s wading into his own destruction but can’t see any other way of making things right.  He’s committed to justice, even if it means getting it alone, and Hyams doesn’t rush the slow, steady waiting game on Io.  He lets the tension build as the killers draw ever closer and O’Niel’s desperation mounts.

And when the showdown comes, it’s oh-so predictable, and more than a little fun.  Watching Sean Connery take down the bad guys would be aces in any environment, but Hyams gets a lot of mileage out of the mining colony’s long, dark corridors and weightless outside structures.  It makes for a nice balance of realism and escapism; we can guess the broad strokes of the end shootout, but the vacuum of space adds its own singular terrors.

In the end, I think that’s why Outland‘s cult has grown in the intervening years since its 1981 premiere; people just like its sci-fi twist on the beloved horse opera.  It’s got an unflappable hero and a slimy villain and a great sidekick (Frances Sternhagen, whose on-site doctor is a wonderful variation on Walter Brennan from Rio Bravo) and loads of bloody action and an unlikely (but glorious) happy ending.  You know when they say, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore”?

They’re talking about Outland.

Warner gives Outland a solid HD presentation.  Peter Hyams acted as his own cinematographer, and he favors a dark, murky frame.  This aesthetic could cause visual distortions, but overall, this is a good, clean transfer.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also pretty great, especially during the action-y last act.

Other than the trailer, we only get one major supplement of substance, but it’s a good one: Hyams contributes a full-length audio commentary.  Despite the intervening thirty-one years, he still remembers a lot about the production and delves into the film’s history (including copping to the influence Alien had on him).  A wonderful, informative session for Outland fans.

Outland shouldn’t work as well as it does – this improbable Reese’s Cup of Sci-fi and Western – but its fidelity to both genres keeps it honest.

Outland is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.