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Outland – feature review

January 10, 2015

OUTLAND

High Moon

outland - connery green house

Written & directed by Peter Hyams. Starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle and James B. Sikking. Year of release: 1981. Running time: 112 minutes.

Prior to helming his fourth feature Capricorn One in 1978, Peter Hyams was no stranger to space exploration; having worked for eight years as a producer and TV anchorman for CBS News; covering NASA’s manned space program during the 1960s. In 1970 he moved to Hollywood where he penned his first screenplay T.R. Baskin – filmed a year later and starring Peter Boyle and Candice Bergen. He would also pen the Charles Bronson-starring conspiracy thriller Telefon in 1977 and co-wrote the Steve McQueen thriller The Hunter in 1980. It was during the release of his fifth feature as director; the Harrison Ford-starring WW2 romantic drama Hanover Street     in 1979; when Hyams first saw the initial batch of photographic images from the Voyager I space probe’s encounter with Jupiter and its moons; that he decided upon the setting for his next film: the gritty outer space western, Outland.

Sean Connery stars as Federal District Marshal William T. O’Neil, a lawman with integrity and a strong sense of duty; charged with maintaining order at an isolated mining colony on Jupiter’s moon Io. When a rash of psychotic behavior and suicides begin to befall the mine workers, O’Neil uncovers a sinister drug ring involving Shepherd (Peter Boyle) – the General Manager, who, with the sole aim of increasing productivity, has been supplying his workers with a super strong synthetic stimulant; knowing full well the terrible impact it is having on his employees. When Shepherd finds he is unable to buy O’Neil’s silence on the issue, he arranges for a couple of company hit men to arrive on the next shuttle to deal with the toublesome lawman. Realizing Shepherd’s nefarious plan, and finding that his own deputies have been     paid off to step aside and offer no assistance, O’Neil reluctantly accepts help from the colony’s alcoholic physician Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) in taking down     the hitmen when they arrive.

While critics of the day took great delight in denigrating Outland as nothing more than a sci-fi knock-off of the classic 1952 Gary Cooper-starring western High Noon, Hyams himself never publically admitted it was an inspiration. Interestingly these very same critics didn’t seem to take issue with Roger Corman’s space opera western Battle Beyond the Stars (released the previous year) – being a virtual beat-for-beat re-telling of The Magnificent Seven. Perhaps it was just something they’d expect from Corman. If truth be told, it is really only the second half of Outland which plays out like a replay of High Noon – with the first half being more like a conspiracy crime thriller from the 70s.

outland - miners

While the pacing may seem a little too ‘slow-burn’ for contempory audiences, there are still a number of brilliantly-staged and suspenseful sequences to be enjoyed. The scene where one of the mine workers (clearly high on drugs) voluntarily enters the mine elevator (without wearing his pressure suit) and descends into the mine to face what will surely be a certain and horrible death – while his co-workers can only look on in horror – is extremely well done (due in no small part to Jerry Goldsmith’s incredibly tense and visceral score during this sequence). Another standout sequence is the scene where Connery attempts to negotiate with a drug-crazed worker (Steven Berkoff) who is terrorizing a hooker with a knife. The film editing during this sequence beautifully showcases the talents of editor Stuart Baird (The Omen, Superman The Movie, Lethal Weapon) especially in terms of escalating the tension and the building of suspense. Amusingly, Baird disallowed Hyams from sitting in on the editing of the picture – which says much about Hyams’ faith in Baird’s ability; that he was happy to take a back seat and allow the master to do his work.

outland - con-am 27

Although it could be argued Hyams seems to have been inspired by the gritty industrialized look of the future world depicted in Ridley Scott’s Alien, Hyams     insists this is not the case – instead citing real life industrial frontiers such as         the Panama Canal, the Alaskan pipeline and offshore oil rigs as his inspiration.         As Hyams described to journalists Blake Mitchell and Jim Ferguson in the August     81 issue of Fantastic Films magazine, “Outland uses the future as a location rather than the prime subject. It is a film based on feasibility. It talks about what we’re going to be doing and why we’re going to be out there in space as opposed to the traditional ‘expanding the horizon of the species premise.’ The United States built the Panama Canal for a specific reason. We settled the West for a reason. The people who inhabited the Panama Canal building site, the people who inhabited Dodge City, the people who inhabit the offshore oil rigs, the people who built the Alaskan pipeline, are the same people who inhabit Outland, and by and large they’re not explorers.” Hyams sums it up best in the production notes on the DVD, “These are places which attract people with suspect pasts, who have little to lose and are out for as much gain as possible in the shortest amount of time.” In accordance with this, it’s interesting that Hyams refers to the look of the mining colony in Outland as ‘industrial malace’ – meaning; that nothing is designed for the comfort of the people who inhabit Con-Am 27.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that the name of the mining company featured in Outland – Consolidated Amalgamate (Con-Am) – appears to be a favored moniker which Hyams has used several times in his films. It first appears in his screenplay T.R. Baskin (as the name of the company Peter Boyle works for) and pops up again in Capricorn One (as the name of the aero-space firm who manufactured the faulty life support system which leads to the aborting of the Mars flight).

Despite Hyams’ insistance to the contrary, there is no denying the similarities with the industrialized look and feel of Alien. They are so similar in fact that Outland could indeed be considered as taking place in the same universe as Scott’s film (an idea strengthened by Hyams’ use of Alien costume designer, John Mollo, and model builders Martin Bower and Bill Pearson).

outland - workers quarters

The moody and atmospheric anamorphic widescreen cinematography shot by Hyams himself (credited to Stephen Goldblatt) – with his use of smoke-filled sets; lit for the most part by practical lighting built into them; creates a terrific sense of verisimilitude. And this sense of realism also extends to Hyams’ use of extras – particularly in the workers quarters scenes. As Hymas revealed to Fantastic Films, “I had the extras stay in the workers quarters for days. I put them in bunks and put dirty magazines around, all sorts of things. And I just wouldn’t let them out. They would just sit there for hours. After a while I saw some really strange things begin to happen. First there was a kind of lethargy. The guys started to cluster around and play cards. The way guys would move around themselves. It became real. I’m not smart enough to have placed a bunch of guys in there and say drape yourselves this way and that. What I did was to just have people get in there and live in that place so long that it became real.” It should also be noted: the immersive Oscar-nominated sound by John Wilkinson, Robert W. Glass Jr., Robert Thirlwell and Robin Gregory; with its abundance of environmental and industrial ambience; also contributes enormously     to the realism of not just the workers’ quarters – but the entire world of Con-Am 27.

outland - leisure club

And re-watching it this time around, I was struck by just how little the notoriously raunchy leisure club scenes have dated. Usually with future world building; when entertainment is depicted, it usually dates a movie pretty severely; as it is nigh impossible to predict what future pop trends might be (based purely on projecting what seems cutting edge at the time – as with Elmer Bernstein’s disco music used as source in Saturn 3 for example). With the leisure club in Outland, with its exotic dancers (naked bodies painted entirely black; undulating in the throws of simulated sex acts beneath cones of pulsing blue laser light; to the throbbing pulse of 90s style euro-trash electronica) – this actually still feels surprisingly prescient.

sean connery - outland

Sean Connery gives what is perhaps the best performance of his career in Outland. As Federal Marshal William O’Neil, he is called upon to reveal a vulnerability not seen in any previous film role; particularly during a scene where he becomes openly tearful during a long-distance video call with his estranged wife and son. As Hyams told Fantastic Films; it was an emotionally intense scene to shoot in which, “Sean had to expose parts of himself that I don’t think have ever really been exposed on film before. You could see it in him, it was like a horse before the race. That kind of strain. You could see him like start to paw the ground. The day before, he just sat around, and got very quiet, which wasn’t like him. I asked if he’d like to do the close up before the master? He said okay. And you knew, somehow or other, he would put it down on the first take, you just knew it. Sometimes you can just sense it, I guess it’s just part of your job. I had a feeling that there was going to be a special kind of intensity. Sean sat down and did it. When he got done, there were camera operators and grips crying. People applauded. It was a really special moment.” Connery gives such an incredibly moving performance during this scene, it’s such a shame the child actor who plays his son (on the video monitor) is so unconvincing. Thankfully, this is the only misstep as far as casting is concerned – as the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent. The semi-serious banter Connery shares with the acid-tongued and curmudgeonly company physician Lazarus (played by Frances Sternhagen) is particularly endearing. And Peter Boyle is also terrific in his role as the chief villain Shepherd; passively menacing; so in charge he never has to raise his voice. And despite the fact we are meant to find his attitude abhorrent, he still remains a character whose motivations we clearly understand (which is more than can be said for most villains we see in contempory films these days).

outland - dr lazarus

Interestingly (as was the case with Ripley in Alien), Lazarus was originally written as a man. However, once Hyams had finished the screenplay he decided to change the charcater’s gender without changing a line of dialogue – as it was an opportunity to place a woman in a strong role that was not limited by the sexuality of being a woman or a man, “It is a character in fact that has no underlying sexual motivations” Hyams told Fantastic Films, “She’s not there as a love interest, she’s there as a person. And I made no concessions. It’s a real friendship between Sean and this woman, one of great intelligence … even though she drinks too much. I wanted very much for one     of the leading characters in this movie to be a woman but not play a woman, simply to play a role. You’re dealing with the future. You can’t possibly deal with the future without having women assume the positions that they ultimately must assume. If you went to the present day Soviet Union, you’d see that it wouldn’t be uncommon to go into that hospital in the Soviet Union and to see a woman surgeon.” With all the talk recently about good female roles drying up for actresses above a certain age, perhaps Hyams’ decision to cast Frances Sterhagen in Outland could be viewed as   a successful precedent for casting more women in roles traditionally written for men.

Much has been made of the scientific inaccuracies scattered throughout Outland, but little has been said about what Hyams got right. The moving weather bands on Jupiter we see in the opening moments of the film are scientifically accurate – as is Jupiter’s single ring (yes, believe it not – Jupiter does in fact have a ring; something which Hyams again depicted in 2010 three years later). However, the glaringly obvious scientific inaccuracies seem to have overshadowed these details and invaribly raise the ire of the factually pedantic. The first being the effect depicted when a person is subjected to the extremes of zero pressure atmosphere. There are several times where people swell up like balloons and violently explode – which isn’t what really happens at all (in reality, a person would merely suffocate, before freezing in the     700 below zero extreme cold of space). It seems unlikely, with Hyams’ interest in space exploration, that he did this out of ignorance and seems more likely he did it     for dramatic effect. Also, during the opening expository preamble we are told the gravity on Io is 1/6 of Earth’s gravity and yet everyone is walking around like it’s normal. Yeah, okay – but that’s cool (ater all – it would be ridiculous having everyone moving around like Thunderbirds puppets). But then, we are also shown a scene where a felon is held in a zero gravity jail cell – suspended in mid-air. Okay – so it’s scientifically impossible, but it’s not enough to seriously derail the film. There is an unwritten rule with sci-fi that states that as long as you only bend or break one rule of physics per movie – you can get away with it (but no more than one). And yes, okay, so this film breaks more than one rule – but as I said – it’s not nearly enough to ruin one’s overall enjoyment of the movie. And after all, iconic sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke was reportedly an admirer of both Hyams’ Outland and Capricorn One – which would later lead to their close collaboration on the 1984 film version of Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two (filmed as 2010).

outland - connery - greenhouse

The in-camera wizardry of Introvision.

In order to gain as much production value from the $16 million dollar budget as possible, Hyams hired fledgling visual effects company Introvision to incorporate actors into the impressive Jovian vistas and mine colony exteriors, using an advanced patented version of front-screen projection. Developed by former stage magician Joe Eppolito, Introvision (as the technique was christened) was essentially a large box-like housing mounted on front of the camera; containing half-silvered mirrors and mattes, coupled with a transparency projector, which enabled actors on an empty sound stage to appear to be inside whatever image (be it a matte painting or photographic element) was projected on the huge Scotchlight screen behind them. The beauty of the system was that it allowed actors to appear and disappear behind elements which weren’t physically present on stage – thus negating the need to build expensive sets. Also advantageous was the fact the director could look through the camera viewfinder and see exactly how the shot would appear. As the completed shot was composited entirely ‘in camera’ at the time it was filmed, the usual two weeks it would normally take to see a result using blue screen and photo-chemical compositing was also negated, so the completed FX shot could be viewed as part     of the rushes the following day. Between 40 and 50 such shots were completed for Outland and even today people would be hard-pressed to spot them. While the Introvision technique had the potential to revolutionize the visual effects industry back in the day, due to the poor box office performance of Outland and Megaforce (Introvision’s follow-up project), coupled with Introvision being perceived as a threat     to the monopoly held by other established visual effects companies at the time, meant the company sadly found difficulty in gaining a foothold in the market (the last substantial use of the Introvision process was in 1992 on Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness – before the company folded with the advent of digital compositing).

outland - chase sequence

There isn’t a great deal of action to speak of in Outland – aside from a show-stopping foot chase half way through. And what an amazing sequence it is. This has got to be one of the most thrilling, visceral and kinetic foot chases ever put to film (right up there with the extended foot chase from Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break). It begins with Connery; alerted to a drug deal on the surveillance monitors; rushing to confront the dealer in the workers’ quarters – where the five minute chase ensues; the fluidly mobile camera keeping pace with the frenzied pursuit every beautifully-staged step of the way; up and down catwalks; leaping across gaps between floors; before spilling out into connecting corridors and finally climaxing in a crowded cafeteria; where a viscious tussle between Connery and the dealer in the kitchen finally culminates     with O’Neil getting his man. This beautifully-paced and tightly-edited sequence again highlights the incredible talent of editor Stuart Baird and again shows why composer Jerry Goldsmith is in a league of his own when it comes to heightening the intensity of action sequences.

While Outland happens to have been produced in the early 80s, it is nonetheless very much a product of Nixon-era 70s paranoia and distrust of authority (Hyams had, after all, previously produced the ultimate conspiracy thriller Capricorn One) – which may have been part of the reason why it struggled to find an audience in the year it was released (this was the dawning of the Reagan era after all; with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II being the big hits of that particular summer).

Remarkably Outland has dated very little over the years; with its prescient theme of corporate greed at the expense of workers’ well-being being even more telling today. Hymas’ compelling screenplay and assured direction; coupled with a perfectly-realized setting and Sean Connery’s finely-tuned performance makes Outland essential viewing for lovers of gritty, intelligent, adult-oriented sci-fi.

(Screencaps courtesy of the Science Fiction Cult Classics facebook page)

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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