Well there’s no real mistaking what Peter Hyams set out to do with this movie. From the opening credits and score its pretty clear that Hyams had been heavily influenced by a certain Ridley Scott sci-fi horror. Yet despite that the story is actually a western set in space, heavily influenced by the classic 1952 cowboy movie ‘High Noon’. In all honesty this film feels more like an adaptation (to a degree) of the Gary Cooper classic, but either way you look at it, there isn’t too much originality going on here Mr Hyams.
The plot sees Federal Marshal William O’Niel (Sean Connery) starting his new tour of duty based on the Jovian moon Io. O’Niel polices a harsh titanium ore mining outpost on the moon. The conditions are tough, its bleak, O’Niel is away from his family and things are about to get even more uncomfortable for the marshal. When several miners appear to suffer from nervous breakdowns or massive fatigue due to ‘burning out’, O’Niel is told its all part and parcel of the job. General manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) claims productivity has broken records since he took over, the shifts are long but the rewards are big. So the odd miner going nuts maybe isn’t anything to be too concerned over. However, O’Niel is not convinced and decides to dig a little deeper with the help of medic Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen).
So its not really much of a surprise that this movie does indeed look like Ridley Scott’s masterpiece ‘Alien’. Hymas did in fact hire a few people that worked on the 1979 horror sci-fi, set decorator Stuart Rose, costume designer John Mollo and model maker Martin Bower. And boy did Hymas get what he wanted, instantly you can see the similarities between both movies with the industrial looking sets and very workman-like outfits of all the various crews. In all honesty this movie could almost be set in the same timeline as ‘Alien’ from a visual standpoint, it blends in so well. Now originality issues aside, this isn’t a bad thing, far from it, ‘Outland’ looks terrific with its bleak, dark, steamy, claustrophobic visage. That entire ‘blue collar workers/space truckers’ in space angle is captured perfectly.
Set wise you could say its like watching an entire movie set on the Nostromo (again). While this mining facility hasn’t quite got the same kind of scope or detail you can see the influences and it does work effectively. Personal quarters have a very metallic, industrial vibe with that familiar futuristic looking padding effect on the walls. There are lots of control panels with monitors and various lighting effects strewn around, large solid steel doors, brightly lit warning signs, lots of steel grating, minimalistic white coloured eating/kitchen areas etc…At the same time other sections of the facility are more dimly lit and more technical, walkways have a hint of ‘2001’ about them with bright white lighting and being hexagon in shape. And of course there’s the canteen or bar for the miners which is your stereotypical dimly lit, sleazy, smoky den of corruption complete with space strippers. The only thing missing would be skimpy plastic clothes and lots of neon.
The facility exterior is also very impressive but a bit shaky looking these days. Front projection (I think, might have been rear projection) was used for many exterior shots which are kinda obvious watching today unfortunately. That isn’t to say they look bad, obvious but not bad, the colour tends to give it away. A combination of models, miniatures and sets were also incorporated which generally look pretty sweet but again obvious by today’s standards. Various shots of the facility look very realistic and, ahem…’Alien’-esque with lots of tiny surface details, flashing warning lights and of course a very heavy industrial metallic appearance overall. The models are decent but do tend to remind me some models you might see in an episode of Red Dwarf. Watching the actors spacewalk does unfortunately also look very much like they’re walking on a set…very…slowly. Again the spacesuits that are worn seem to be heavily influenced by that Ridley Scott movie, OK lets not beat around the bush here they’re virtually identical!
I feel the story does actually lose its impetus when the hired hitmen arrive to whack O’Niel (after he’s discovered what’s going on). Up to that point its very tense, very eerie, you’re not sure how many guys will turn up, whether they’ll be huge or maybe cyborgs or something. You get the classic moment when O’Niel walks into the space bar and asks for some help from the workers (ala ‘High Noon’). Its here when the excitement really does start to mount because you know he ain’t getting no help. But then it all goes down the pan when two very ordinary blokes turn up with shotguns, oh.
Two! just two guys?? Surely you’d send a few more than that? Not only that but O’Niel could of taken them out the minute they stepped off the shuttle, the setup was perfect. Then when you start to think about it, there are plenty of ways in which O’Niel could have avoided these guys. Hiding in the packed space bar for starters, who cares about the patrons after they refused to help. But none of that really matters in the end because he kills them pretty quickly with ease. The facility interior simply offered up way too many options to jump and surprise the bad guys so you don’t really feel the tension.
The score does help with the sequences of action and build up. Its not really musical but more…industrial (there’s that word again). I really don’t wanna keep mentioning that Ridley Scott film but there are so many similar aspects here its impossible not too. But yes the score is very similar in tone to Scott’s masterpiece, its offers the same kind of slow, haunting, emotional tunes that will feel familiar and are admittedly effective here.
But let me be clear here, this is not an action flick, there isn’t loads of gunfire, fisticuffs and plosions (maybe a little fisticuffs). There are some nice subtle hints of gore, just the odd dark flash of blood ‘n’ guts when the odd miner bites the dust. The infamous exploding head sequences are now most amusing, yet when I was a kid they were as terrifying as the melting faces in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Overall, and much like the musical score, this is a slow building, somewhat haunting, tense affair that is telling a very straight forward story with few fancy thrills. Its your standard heroic cowboy movie with a space backdrop. Sean Connery gives a good solid performance as the ‘sheriff’ as it were, who rolls into town and must clean it up. The difference here being Connery’s character isn’t gruff and butch as you might expect, but actually more quiet, calm, sensitive, a slightly broken man who pines for his family.
‘Outland’ isn’t a classic movie, its not gonna be in most people’s top ten sci-fi movies, in fact I’d say its generally forgotten these days. Alas its very familiar tones will turn some folk off I’m sure, simply brushing it aside as a rip-off, which I would understand. All I can say is I highly recommend the film to anyone who hasn’t seen it and to anyone who hasn’t seen it in a long time. Its a very simple but effective film that showcases nicely grounded, dark science fiction.