I’ve always been a big fan of Peter Hyams’ 1981 science fiction thriller Outland, though I’m aware that I’m in something of a minority. All I can imagine is that in the wake of Alien (1980) a lot of sci-fi fans were expecting something more horrific, rather than what is basically a police procedural in space. Or should I say a western in space, because the makers of Outland freely admitted that it was a science fiction remake of High Noon? Whatever its origin, this film initially brushed aside as an Alien cash-in (which it totally isn’t) has gone on to be more influential on the visual make-up of modern sci-fi than its makers would ever have hoped for and although it’s never quite picked up the cult following of a lot of disregarded 80s movies, it definitely deserves more love and attention than it currently enjoys.
Outland was produced by The Ladd Company, an independent entity backed by Warner Bros and created primarily by Alan Ladd Jr., son of the famous Shane actor Alan Ladd and as the head of Project Development at 20th Century Fox, the man who green-lit both Star Wars and Alien. In fact, Ladd argued against his superiors at Fox, who didn’t really want to finance Star Wars and it was partly his lack of recognition for bringing them their biggest money-spinner of all time that encouraged him to break away and form his own company in 1979. Ladd was always a supporter of science fiction and alongside Outland, the company also helped produce Michael Crichton’s Looker (1981) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), before moving on to predominantly comedies after the success of the Police Academy series.
Director Peter Hyams had scored a minor hit for Ladd in his last year at Fox with the sci-fi conspiracy thriller Capricorn One and his proposed next feature, then called Io (after the moon of Jupiter on which it was set) was on the boards at the major studio, but had not been signed off, so Ladd took it with him to The Ladd Company. By now, Alien – one of Ladd’s last projects before his departure from Fox – had proved a big hit and the market was open for dark, adult science fiction. Io ticked all of those boxes, though nobody cared much for the title, thinking that it might be confused with Blake Edwards’ 1979 sex comedy 10. So the title was changed to Outland and the film went into production as a star vehicle for Sean Connery, whose career had floundered a little in the decade since he finished playing James Bond, but was just beginning to pick up momentum.
Outland tells the story of William O’Neil (Connery), an off-world Marshall who has been posted to a rough ore-mining colony on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. Marshall O’Neil is an honest man, but when a number of workers start behaving in a violent and erratic manner, he soon finds that there is a culture of institutionalised corruption on the station revolving around the importation and distribution of potentially lethal amphetamines. At the centre of the racket is the Station Manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) who, when he finds that the new Marshall can be neither bought nor intimidated, has a couple of professional hitmen shipped in to dispose of him. As with High Noon, the rest of the station is so threatened by Sheppard that no-one will agree to help O’Neil apart from the acidic chief medical officer Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen).
As a back-story to all of this is the fact that O’Neil’s wife and son, who initially came with him to the station, have become so sick of the shut-in lifestyle that they have boarded a shuttle back to Earth. Carol O’Neil is played by Kika Markham (stepmother of Jemma Redgrave and sister of Ace of Wands’ Petra Markham) who puts in a very memorable performance despite not really getting much to do. With his wife out of the way, the central (albeit platonic) relationship of the film is between Marshall O’Neil and Dr. Lazarus; Connery and Sternhagen absolutely sparkle on screen together and their snippy repartee is the highlight of the film. Connery’s “that’s a Marshall joke,” gag is still one of my favourite lines in any film ever. Peter Boyle artfully treads the line between likeable and sinister as Sheppard and both he and James B. Sikking as Montone effortlessly sell the idea of weary, workmanlike characters to whom this otherworldly setting is completely mundane.
Because Outland was shot in the UK, the cast is replete with recognisable faces from British television of the time, including Gary Olsen, Stuart Milligan, Sharon Duce and John Ratzenberger. Steven Berkoff gets an impressively high billing as a drug-fuelled psycho, despite being shot dead after about four minutes – probably due to his international reputation as a theatrical wunderkind. You could easily miss a lot of the smaller roles though, because the sets of the colony are, for the most part, absolutely packed with personnel. There’s a stifling sense of claustrophobia that’s only really topped by the overpopulated streets of Soylent Green and legend has it that, in order to make the workers seem authentically bored and weary-looking, Peter Hyams populated the sets with extras several hours before he started shooting. If that’s true it certainly works, because there are few films that have such an authentic industrial feel.
The impressive sets were given added weight by the use of a filming process called Introvision, which allowed the director to mix a combination of sets, mattes and miniatures in-camera, avoiding the then-lengthy process of messing about with green screen. Although the process was something of a technical dead-end, it certainly looks impressive and I defy anyone to pick out the scenes in which it was used; it most noticeably lacks the thick black matte-lines that mark out green screen shots in even the most high budget 1980s films. Another smart move was to build many of the station interiors as modular sets, allowing Hyams to shoot a chase scene through numerous corridors in one breath-taking continuous shot; a trick that he would pull again a couple of years later – to much creepier effect – in his film version of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010.
The costume design was by John Mollo, who won an Academy Award in 1978 for creating the iconic look of Star Wars; it has a similar feel to his work on Alien, but has a more real-world feel and less of the comic strip influence of Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. The spacesuits on Outland often receive criticism for looking a bit basic compared to those in Alien, but you have to remember that this is set in an industrial complex with hundreds of workers who need to be equipped with protective outfits – they’re hardly going to be top-of-the-range gear, are they? As long as they protect the employees from explosive decompression, they’re doing their job. The Marshalls’ outfits are more fondly remembered, clearly influencing the BBC’s Star Cops and any number of latterday sci-fi movies and TV series. You can even see a hint of their influence on Aliens (which was not designed by John Mollo).
Outland races along at a fair old pace, although its structure is that of a police drama rather than a sci-fi movie, which only adds to its uniqueness. The ‘countdown’ to the arrival of the hitmen is delightfully tense, as O’Neil becomes increasingly aware that no-one is going to help him against the two hired murderers. The only point at which the film falls down is in taking the climactic confrontation outside the station; having your protagonists lumbering around in slow motion is not really the best way to end a film and reminds me of nothing so much as another misjudged Connery ending – the slow-moving scuba-diving climax to Thunderball (which they failed to rectify in the remake Never Say Never Again). It’s a minor let-down, all things considered, but it would at least have been nice to clearly see the lead actor’s face during the final confrontation.
No feature about Outland would be complete without a mention for Jerry Goldsmith’s superb score. A lot of Goldsmith’s best work from the 80s was in lesser-known films and hence doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s ironic that his most highly regarded score of the era, that of Alien, had such a troubled history, with much of Goldsmith’s original score being cut and replaced by a mixture of cues from other soundtracks and classical pieces. Outland probably has the kind of score that Jerry Goldsmith intended for Alien; a lush, rolling work performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra that evokes the bleakness and isolation of outer space. It brings to mind some of Goldsmith’s older work on the Twilight Zone TV series and has occasional moments of electronic music; something that the composer would experiment with throughout the 80s on films like Michael Crichton’s Runaway.
All told, Outland is a much better film than it generally gets credit for and I firmly believe that we’re still seeing its influence on the film and TV of today. Bookended by Capricorn One and 2010, Peter Hyams briefly became the go-to guy for sci-fi thrillers, before switching to more earthbound concerns. His later flirtation with more action-oriented sci-fi in films like Timecop and A Sound of Thunder never quite recaptured his heyday, but he’s still a worthy and innovative director. There was talk of an Outland TV series in the 90s, which never came to pass, but one can easily imagine the further of Marshall William T. O’Neil out in the dark and distant reaches of the solar system as a brand new streamed series for Netflix or Amazon Prime. Of course, it wouldn’t have the solid gold banter of Sean Connery and Frances Sternhagen, but you can’t have everything, can you?