Peter Hyams began his movie career after a spell as a TV newsman, breaking into screenwriting on the wistful melodrama T.R. Baskin (1971) and debuting as director with the comedy-drama cop flick Busting (1974). His directing career gained real steam with the dashing Capricorn One (1977), and from then on he specialised in slick thrillers, sci-fi epics, and action flicks. Eventually his reputation deflated, he worked with Jean Claude Van Damme a few too many times, and nearly crashed to a permanent halt with the 2005 bomb A Sound of Thunder. But at his height in the 1980s, Hyams was seen as a suitable successor to Stanley Kubrick to make 2010 (1984), chiefly thanks to his success with Outland. Outland took up where Alien (1979) left off in fashioning a distinctive brand of realistic cinematic sci-fi that presumed the stars might one day be colonised for the same reason people venture to rough and barely habitable reaches of the Earth, depicting an extreme, gritty environment where working men and women rather than intergalactic swashbucklers tread, and then only for profit. At the same time, Outland also unabashedly exemplified a trend many suspected after the success of Star Wars (1977), that the Western genre had gone off-world for good. Hyams had wanted to make a good old-fashioned horse opera, but eventually settled for making a variation on Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952) in space. Set on the Jupiter moon Io, Outland convincingly depicts a mining operation as a claustrophobic, grimy, paranoia-stoking outpost where corporate-sponsored drug abuse, introduced to squeeze ever-more impressive productivity from labourers, is causing psychological meltdowns.
The opening scene sees one worker (Maurice Roëves) suddenly gripped by drug-fuelled delusions, convinced he’s got a spider inside his space suit, causing him to rip off his helmet. The results of explosive decompression are vividly, if not realistically, portrayed. Similar incidents proliferate, including one man, Sagan (Steven Berkoff at his most wiry and fruitloopy), going berserk with a prostitute and kicking off a siege, forcing the mine police force to pry him out. The new Marshall on Io, William O’Niel (Sean Connery), deduces the cause of the rash of lunatic activities, but as he digs into the mystery, learns the mine’s drug racket, although utilising the experienced smuggling and distributing skills of ex-cons Spota (Marc Boyle) and Yario (Richard Hammatt), is actually overseen and protected by the mine manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle). Sheppard makes it clear that his managing practices are endorsed by the mining company, and if he pushes too hard, O’Niel will be targeted by hired killers to be shipped in on the next supply shuttle. O’Niel however has reasons for refusing to toe the line beyond mere professional duty. He’s just been abandoned by his wife Carol (one-time Two English Girls star Kika Markham), after being shunted off to another grungy shithole at the far end of the spacefaring line, because she wants to take their son Paul (Nicholas Barnes) back to Earth, where he’s never been before, and the experience has left the Marshall determined to prove he actually stands for something.
Outland creates a specific and memorable little world, a poorly-lit, fetid-looking, boxy habitation where workers live in tiny cages with sweat and cum congealing on the walls, relax in a nightclub where you can all but hear their bank balances shrinking as they drink away the depression of working here, screw the company prostitutes (Sheppard is particularly proud of their cleanliness), and eventually crack and kill themselves in spectacular body-destroying acts, maybe after hacking someone else up too. The film as an artefact of design and world-building has barely dated, except for the clunky computer technology on display throughout: otherwise Outland remains a convincing vision of an off-world future in large part because it never strains to be futuristic (even the thudding techno in the nightclub scenes sounds, thanks to retro trends, still pretty current). Hyams was evolving a distinctive look for his films (he would eventually become his own cinematographer, but here worked with Stephen Goldblatt), utilising wide frames but with unusual focal planes and hosepipe effects during action scenes for increased intensity, and scant source lighting often daubed in tones of icy blues and dank reds, adding up to a flashy, haute-moderne pseudo-style (James Cameron certainly owes something to him, John McTiernan and Michael Bay probably too, for better or worse). It’s not mere technocrat flash, either, because Hyams always keeps the characters and their relationship with this environment in focus, their shared travails in a place that at once bores and puts them constantly on edge. Outland is most charming when finding time for exchanges of shaggy, wearily good-humoured exchanges between O’Niel and his co-workers, and noting the tattiness behind the tech, like Sheppard’s desperate need for a haircut.
Hyams’ casting, including an array of character actors drawn from the resolutely earthbound styles of ‘70s New Wave film and the stage, including Boyle, James Sikking, Frances Sternhagen, and Berkoff, smartly backs up the design work in forging a convincing mood of workaday casualness and giving the rather slight story body. Connery, greying and weathered in middle age and working well in such acting company, comes across like a caged animal in the on-screen environment, his physical bulk and charisma like engines uncoupled from the machines they drive and whirring away anxiously, lending peculiar immediacy to his effective performance as a man who looks like he can handle anything but has been steadily castrated by his place in the scheme of things. Sternhagen is great fun as Dr Lazarus, the smart-assed mine doctor who first ticks off O’Niel with her astringent attitude, but eventually becomes his lone real helper and pal as the chips stack up against him, all bony limbs and chomping teeth as she rolls up sarcasms and spits them at whoever’s listening. It’s entirely possible that, even without romantic business between them, Sternhagen was Connery’s most effective leading lady since at least Audrey Hepburn and more likely since Honor Blackman. O’Niel has variably trustworthy aides amongst his team of lawmen, including Sgt. Montone (Sikking), on the take but tentatively agreeing to shield his new boss, and Ballard (Clarke Peters), who seems the most competent but who tells O’Niel he and the other cops won’t be risking their necks for him. Meanwhile some hidden agent of Sheppard’s murders Montone and a captive suspect, leaving O’Niel as the sole roadblock needing to be cleared before operations can continue as normal.
Outland certainly seems to have done its part for codifying if not originating some key ‘80s genre film clichés, including the evil corporate boss who practises golf in his office and gets his comeuppance by a sock in the face at the end, and the unknown villain who suddenly comes into the open to extend the finale. Hyams intelligently suggests the underlying tensions of the O’Niels’ marriage at the outset before it’s acknowledged in dialogue with his use of camera and setting, laying the seeds for O’Niel’s isolation. Interestingly, part of Carol’s frustration with him predicts his deepening predicament, his moral rectitude and dedication taken as an excuse by others to make him do things others would balk at. The “lone man against a corrupt system” plotline was everywhere in late ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture of course, but Hyams tackled it so consistently that it certainly counted as a personal theme. Here he found its common ground with the motif of the gunfighter-law keeper in the classic Western template. The craven populace of the mine mimics the townsfolk in High Noon tale as they shrink from risking their necks (“It’s supposed to be your job!” one tells him), whilst the big digital clock that ticks off the moments until the shuttle’s arrival pays overt tribute to the town clock that hits zenith just as the bad guys arrive in Zinneman’s work. The chief difference is that Will Kane’s loyalty to the idea if not the reality of civic virtue can’t stand in a world where the powers that be have created the malignant situation rather than random avatars of barbarism, so O’Niel sticks to his guns more out of a desire to prove his self-worth than save a commune turned fetid in its collective disinterest.
Hyams’ definable weaknesses as a filmmaker are on display as much as his strengths here however, particularly his willingness to let illogic and a paucity of convincing conceptual imagination defeat the integrity of his narratives, for the sake of broad effect (such lapses hamstrung, for instance, his atmospheric and gamey remake Narrow Margin, 1990). Probably the most vivid moment in the film is also one of these, when O’Niel, chasing down one of his suspects, sinks his hand into a boiling kitchen pot to snatch out a satchel of dope. It’s an appropriately gruelling visualisation of physical pain, although it would have been as easy, and rather less painful, for O’Niel simply push the pot over. The climactic game of wits O’Niel plays with the trio of hitmen who arrive to claim his scalp retains excitement and sees our hero cleverly using the very structure of the outpost against his enemies. But it’s often equally awkward, including some of the dumbest hired killers in movie history. One falls for a silly decoy and blows a hole in the wall of the mine station’s greenhouse, resulting in colossal depressurisation nobody else seems to notice. I also tend to cringe a bit at such shorthand moments as O’Niel telling his son to do “seven pages of maths” by way of parental duty. Such moments of raw ballast do sink Outland down a few notches, preventing it from standing as a minor classic of the genre. But it’s a good, tough, soulful entry, and moreover epitomizes a brand of big-budget, well-crafted, reasonably adult sci-fi we don’t get nearly enough of.