Finally receiving a long-awaited Blu-ray release comes Peter Hyams’ 1981 space western, Outland, an unjustly-neglected piece starring Sean Connery and Frances Sternhagen, the action takes place in a titanium mining base on Jupiter’s moon Io and was described at the time as “High Noon in space.”
Combining many of the standard tropes of both prison movies and westerns, it is not unusual in doing so with Joss Whedon’s Firefly being perhaps the best example of a hard science fiction story using the western motifs which are a natural fit within a frontier setting, although even James Cameron’s Aliens, notwithstanding its space marines and rampaging xenomorphs, is also essentially a western in structure and theme.
Released a decade after his penultimate appearance as James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever during which time he had appeared in two other science fiction projects of questionable merit, Zardoz and Meteor, Connery stars as William O’Niel, the recently-appointed Marshall to Conglomerates Amalgamated bustling mining base Con-Am 27.
Investigating the suspicious “suicides” of two of the miners and with the grudging assistance of the abrasive Doctor Marian Lazarus (Raising Cain’s Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers the dead men were illicitly using extremely potent amphetamines to improve productivity which may have triggered psychotic incidents resulting in their deaths.
As his investigations progress, O’Niel uncovers a network of distribution stretching through the base and beyond and in doing so makes powerful enemies. With the drug dealers’ hold on the base threatened, O’Niel discovers that a gang of hitmen will be arriving on the next weekly shuttle to remove him from office with extreme prejudice and he faces a race against time to ensure his survival, unsure who, if anyone, he can trust.
The first thing which strikes the modern eye about Outland is how visually detailed and atmospheric it is. Shot entirely on soundstages within the UK, Hyams explicitly chose the grimy “used” aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Alien from two years earlier as his inspiration in his brief to designer Philip Harrison. The end result was so effective that it could almost be considered a companion piece, Conglomerates Amalgamated and Weyland Yutani perhaps rival corporations in the offworld industry.
Filmed on huge and intricately designed enclosed sets complete with low ceilings and populated by scores of extras in many scenes, the film has a grimy, overcrowded, claustrophobic quality. The first two-thirds of the film sees the many parts of the base teem with life as miners and assorted support workers go about their daily business, while in stark contrast the last act of the film sees O’Niel stalked through now-deserted corridors as everyone retreats to allow the hitmen free rein. Made in a time when science fiction cinema catered to more mature audiences than today’s teen-friendly fodder, Outland also has a franker approach to gore and sexuality than we are used to seeing now.
At the time of filming, Connery’s career was very much in the doldrums and he was rapidly moving from faded-leading-man to character actor, but nevertheless he manages to hold the film together and elevate every scene he is in by dint of sheer charisma and presence. Hyams recounts how Connery tested his mettle as a director on the first two days of shooting but once his confidence in Hyams was gained Connery, in turn, earned the director’s enduring respect and admiration for his sheer professionalism.
Outland was Connery’s first leading role after a string of flops and two years later he would return to the role of James Bond in the misguided Never Say Never Again, the failure of which seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of his career. However, three years further on he would experience the most remarkable career resurrection in 1986, the year which gave him both Highlander and The Name of The Rose. Restored to both esteemed leading man and film-stealing character actor status he would go on to an Oscar win for The Untouchables in 1987 and be rewarded with a knighthood in 2000. At the time of writing he can still justifiably be called The World’s Most Famous Living Scot.
Here he is equally partnered by the formidable Frances Sternhagen who steals the film from him and, ironically, would be the actor whose career would be significantly rejuvenated due to the praise she received for her performance. Before Outland she had worked mainly on stage and television, being nominated for no fewer than five Tonys over the course of her Broadway career and her appearance in Outland significantly raised her public profile.
Interestingly, in common with Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien, Doctor Lazarus was originally written as a male character and Hyams mentions in his commentary that when he decided to switch the gender his casting advisor made only one recommendation to him – Sternhagen.
Amongst the supporting cast, an unrecognisable Peter Boyle sleazes his way through the film as the base commander Mark Sheppard while Steven Berkoff gives a characteristically intense performance as one of the drugged-up miners. Other notable cast members include James B Sikking, later to be first captain of the USS Excelsior in The Search for Spock, Clarke Peters, recently seen in Jessica Jones and Kika Markham as O’Niel’s wife.
Director Peter Hyams had already enjoyed some genre success with the NASA thriller Capricorn One in 1977 and, three years after Outland would go on to the much-anticipated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey although stylistically and thematically 2010 was much more closely tied to Outland than Kubrick’s abstract original with its explicit narrative and the functional interior of the Leonov a far cry from the gleaming futurism of Discovery.
His style always that of an experienced and well-crafted technician favouring an earthy realistic approach even in his genre films, since then Hyams’ career has been respectable but relatively unspectacular producing solidly-made science fiction and fantasy films and thrillers with superb ensemble casts including The Presidio, Narrow Margin, The Relic and End of Days.
Of his later output, one film which deserves to be seen again in a new disc release is the horror-comedy satire on television, Stay Tuned from 1992 which stars John Ritter (who played Buffy’s robotic “stepdad” Ted) and Pam Dawber (the human half of Mork and Mindy) as a suburban couple trapped in a demonic multiverse based on popular television shows of the time while the now-disgraced Jeffrey Jones steals the film superbly playing the adversarial demon who pops up in various guises in each setting.
A classic which barely returned its exorbitant budget on original release, Outland possesses a rich visual palette, impressive production values and remarkable attention to detail in its execution which, coupled with the excellent cast, elevate it above its B-movie concept. Hyams’ list of collaborators alone would be reason enough to watch this film.
The editing is by Stuart Baird who is held in the highest esteem by many a director of Hollywood action films and who once even directed a Star Trek film himself, and the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith echoes that of Alien in many of the right ways. Outland was produced under the aegis of The Ladd Company which would later be responsible for The Right Stuff and Blade Runner.
In contrast to modern films which rely heavily on digital set extension and digital extras to populate a scene, Outland was made at a time when all this had to be done for real; if a large industrial space filled with people was called for it was necessary to build the sets and hire and costume a hundred extras to populate them.
This pays off handsomely and gives the film a sense of realism mostly absent from similar 21st century genre features, and there is a greater sense of being there in the scene with the actors than one would have now. Hyams points out in his commentary that on the first day of shooting them he gave his extras no specific direction but let them interact naturally for greater verisimilitude, something which would be impossible were every face and gesture created by algorithm.
In an interesting point of production continuity, five years after Outland was made at Pinewood Studios James Cameron would film Aliens in the same space on a comparable budget though with a more ambitious scope and utilising many of the same craftspeople though pushed considerably harder. That film would, of course, go on to instant international success and secure Cameron’s future career.
On the debit side and in common with many films of the era, the pacing can feel, at times, slow to 21st century eyes even with Baird’s for-the-time taut editing and it could perhaps benefit from some minor trimming, however Hyams has crafted an atmospheric thriller that even divested of its science fiction trappings would be gripping and which richly deserves to be re-assessed on its own merits, and Connery and Sternhagen alone were always worth the price of admission.
The transfer on this Blu-ray is damage-free with image quality commensurate with the time it was made. Shadows are rich and dark and colours bold and vibrant where necessary. As with most anamorphic films of the time, there are issues with focus on some shots but these are only occasional. Released exclusively in the UK through HMV, this set also includes a DVD of the film and the sole significant extra is an informative director’s commentary by Peter Hyams recorded for the American Blu-ray release in 2012.