Throwback Thursday: Getting into Outland

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Though known primarily for his immortal role as James Bond, Sean Connery has been in a surprising number of genre films. From 1974’s Zardoz to the Highlander films and the one that unfortunately made him stop acting, 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There is one specific sci-fi film of his that doesn’t get nearly the love or recognition it deserves. That film is 1981’s Outland, directed by Peter Hyams.

Outland UK theatrical poster

Outland UK theatrical poster. Direct and to the point.

Outland is basically High Noon in space. Taking the motifs of Westerns and transporting them to one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, Sean Connery is Federal Marshal William O’Niel, tasked with keeping the peace on a remote mining outpost. When he starts piecing together a number of mysterious deaths, his life is on the line as he determines whether taking a stand is worth dying for. At 109 minutes it’s a slow-burn film where the first half focuses on the lifestyle of the people making their lives in this rugged frontier. The second half adds tension as the time slowly ticks down towards the impending arrival of a shuttle carrying O’Niel’s would-be killers.

Astronaut looking down at the colony.

Looking down on the colony.

Director Peter Hyams had a solid output in the late ’70s through the ’80s. Unfortunately, he then got saddled with a number of “lesser” films such as 1994’s Timecop (I’m sure there are folks out there that love this Van Damme vehicle), and Schwarzenegger’s star vehicle End of Days in 1999. I previously recounted his underrated efforts on 2010: The Year We Make Contact, but a couple of additional standouts from this time period were Running Scared (a fun buddy-cop film with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines), The Presidio, The Star Chamber, and Capricorn One. Hyams directs the lived-in world of Outland perfectly. It is very reminiscent of the atmosphere Ridley Scott created with the first Alien. Things are dirty and used. The space suits are practical, the people look worn out, and they even get a seedy bar to unwind in.

People in space suits

Don’t drink in the space suits, though.

Standouts in the cast are the always-on-point Peter Boyle (as the director of the mining operation) and a standoffish medical officer played by Frances Sternhagen. Boyle gets to play the bad guy but doesn’t do it with a twirling mustache; he does what he needs to keep company profits up. You get the feeling that he doesn’t like the man he has become, but he has resigned to his fate. And Sternhagen is a breath of fresh air (especially for the ’80s) as a woman who’s treated like a knowledgeable person and not just a love interest. In fact, she’s not even a love interest, she gets to be (shocker) a friend. O’Niel’s character is married, and his wife and son leave him because they want to get closer to civilization, which might be the impetus his character needs to set the real plot in motion. He needs something to occupy his time. If his wife didn’t leave him, I wonder if he would have dug as deep or decided what he wanted to fight for. It’s a nuanced script (also written by Hyams) that captures some great characters. Connery plays the subtle script well, and you can see his conflict and resolve, along with regret. As the clock ticks down to high noon (or the space equivalent), you get to watch his methodical approach to getting prepared. He’s willing to meet his maker but he’s going to do everything he can to avoid it. Side note, there’s even a brief cameo by John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers) that you might have to go back and watch to realize it’s him.

John Ratzenberger in a space suit

Seriously, just add mustache for Cliff.

The soundtrack helps to provide the right atmosphere with the slow build of atonal and dissonant sounds composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and the special effects work well. There were a lot of gorgeous models and a unique process that allowed foreground, mid-ground, and background elements to all be combined in frame. The climax set inside and outside the colony’s greenhouse is well shot and shows the limited amount of gravity on Io. The special effects serve the plot, but really it’s a film about the characters and the choices they make. It’s a Western in space focusing on the internal conflicts just as much as the external ones. It’s a well-done film that gets the loneliness and harshness of space life and is recommended if you want to fill in some space opera gaps.

Dr. Marian Lazarus in her uniform

To reiterate, Frances Sternhagen is great in everything.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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