“This moon ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
From all accounts, writer/director Peter Hyams (“Capricorn One,” “2010: The Year We Make Contact” ) wanted to make an honest-to-goodness western in the late 1970s, but following on the successes of “Star Wars” and “ALIEN”, it was clear that the big money at that time (and today) was in science fiction, specifically stories set in outer space. No surprise that Hyams took his “High Noon” (1952) remake idea and changed the New Mexico frontier town to a mining colony set up on Jupiter’s volcanically unstable moon of Io (pronounced “eye-oh,” as the movie reminds us).
Peter Hyams is an often solid moviemaker whose filmography includes sci-fi, political thrillers (“Star Chamber”) and even action comedies (“Running Scared”). While his movies are usually well made and engaging enough, they tend to fall short of being considered ‘classics’. Hyams’ movies aren’t usually heavy on social commentary or socially important messaging, either. His stories range from drug-crime actioners (“Running Scared”) to conspiracies involving space (“Capricorn One”). Or, in the case of Hyams’ Sean Connery vehicle “Outland” (1981), a little bit of both.
Like ALIEN, the movie opens in deep space, with quaint, green-screen computer titles giving us some background on the setting; which happens to be the sulfur-soaked, volcanically active moon of Jupiter known as Io (‘eye-oh’). On Io, we see a large mining complex owned by the Con-Amalgamate corporation (“Con-Am”), which is headquartered on Earth, but which keeps a supply space station close enough to Io for once-weekly supply runs. Tours of duty for the hard-working, well-paid miners are one year in length.
We see the miners in pressure suits working on some scaffolding outside of the mining complex. The all-male crew of miners (with women in logistical support staff) are bitching about the usual work-related stuff, including replacing a shop steward. As they work, a miner named Tarlow (John Ratzenberger) imagines spiders crawling inside of his pressure suit. The men generally ignore his actions as a ‘joke’ until his odd behavior persists and distracts the other miners.
Note: American actor John Ratzenberger was living in the UK where also costarred in the first two “Superman” movies (1978/1980) as well as “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) (he played rebel “Major Derlin”, whose name is never spoken on camera). Ratzenberger would achieve his greatest fame when he returned to the US for the long-running sitcom “Cheers” (1982-1993) where he played blowhard mailman “Cliff Clavin.” Interestingly, actress Frances Sternhagen, who plays Dr. Lazarus in “Outland”, would later play Cliff’s mother on the sitcom. Sadly, the actors have no scenes together in “Outland.” Today, Ratzenberger is a popular voice actor, having worked on multiple Pixar animated movies.
Tarlow’s imaginary spider infestation reaches critical levels as he tries to take off his pressure suit to stop the unseen intruders. Sadly, Tarlow succeeds in releasing pressure from his suit, causing his head to burst like an over-pressurized balloon (this doesn’t really happen in the hard vacuum of space, nor does it happen so explosively). The death of Tarlow adds to an ever-growing list of dead miners at the Con-Am mining station and the feds are called in.
Note: Seeing imaginary insects or spiders crawling on one’s arms is a common side effect of detoxication, usually when a person is coming off of drugs. However, the vacuum effects seen in “Outland” (and in 1990’s “Total Recall”) are complete works of fiction. Heads won’t just suddenly burst like balloons in hard vacuum. Most likely corpses would have swollen tongues, dried eyes and perhaps burst capillaries under their skin, but no balloon heads. Sorry, movie.
On the nearby Con-Am station, Federal Marshal William O’Niel gets a video call from his superiors; he is to report to Io as the new law enforcement of that hard-living mining operation. O’Niel’s wife Carol (Kika Markham) is devastated to hear she and her son Paul (Nicholas Barnes) are being relocated to that sulfurized hellhole orbiting Jupiter. O’Niel assures her it’s just a short-term assignment until they figure out what’s going on with the locals. O’Niel promises Carol that once this job is done, they will board the next shuttle from the space station to Earth and start a new life together. They kiss on it and pack for Io.
Note: The character name “O’Niel” might be a reference to Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill who theorized an audacious plan in the 1970s to build fully sustainable, wheel-shaped space colonies as independent communities in space (O’Neill space colonies were very popular concepts in the 1970s). Writer/director Peter Hyams used other real-life scientist names later on in the film, such as the psychotic rapist “Sagan” (Steven Berkoff) contrarily named after the gentle humanist astronomer, Dr. Carl Sagan (author of “COSMOS,” and “The Demon Haunted World”). Administrator “Sheppard” might be a reference to pioneering astronaut Alan B. Shepard, and O’Neil’s replacement deputy “Ballard” might be a reference to respected oceanographer and Titanic wreckage discoverer, Dr. Robert Ballard. Hyams was an enthusiast for crewed exploration, as his scripts for “Capricorn One” (1978) and “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984) attest.
On Io, Marshall O’Niel is welcomed by administration in a staff meeting, where he meets his amiable deputy Sergeant Montone (James B. Sikking), and almost instantly clashes with Con-Am’s administrator of the mining station, Mark B. Sheppard (Peter Boyle). It’s an instantly mutual disliking as Sheppard defensively tells O’Niel that his hardworking guys just like to “let off a little steam,” and that their heavy productivity makes the company look the other way from their little transgressions. After the meeting adjourns, O’Niel instantly brands Sheppard “an a$$hole.” Montone agrees with his new boss, but reminds O’Niel that Sheppard is also a very powerful a$$hole.
Note: Actor James B. Sikking, perhaps most famous for playing Doogie Howser’s father on “Doogie Howser M.D” (1989-1993), would also play the obnoxious Captain Styles of the USS Excelsior in “Star Trek III: “The Search For Spock” a few years later. Peter Boyle is most fondly remembered by myself as the lovable zipper-necked Monster from Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974). In this film, he plays a much more realistic sort of monster—the greedy corporate kind. Just about everyone at the Con-Am meeting is smoking cigarettes, too; something you wouldn’t see these days at a real-life board meeting, or even a fictional one.
After getting settled in, O’Niel returns to his mysteriously vacated quarters and checks his video messages. One of the messages is a ‘Dear John’ message from a visibly upset Carol, who didn’t have the courage (or will) to tell her husband in person that she didn’t want to raise their son on Io. Carol is taking Paul back to Earth, because she wants her son to breathe unfiltered air, run on green grass, and be with other kids. She stops short of telling O’Niel she wants a divorce and says that she will wait for awhile on the station, if he decides to join her.
Note: Checking ‘video messages’ seemed so very futuristic back in 1981, when home telephone answering machines were brand new. Even in my bachelor days in the 1990s, I used to screen my calls before I picked up the phone. It was common practice in those dark days before caller-ID. Now we have actual video-conferencing technology, arguably more sophisticated than what we see in this movie (Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc), yet I still hate answering strange calls on the phone. Some things never change…
Throwing himself into the job, O’Niel checks in with the mining colony’s cantankerous M.D, Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen). O’Niel asks the ill-tempered, self-admittedly less-than-ideal doctor about autopsies performed on the recent dead miners. Lazarus says the bodies were immediately shipped back to Earth before autopsies could be performed, without explanation. O’Niel immediately senses a conspiracy is afoot. To his surprise, Lazarus presents O’Niel with shocking statistics on worker suicides, which have increased dramatically over the past few months since Sheppard was placed in charge. O’Niel is impressed with the acerbic doctor’s data collection, but less impressed with her uncooperative attitude. While there is an undercurrent of mutual admiration between these two forces of nature, O’Niel half-kiddingly tells her that if she doesn’t start helping him out, he will kick her smart ass all over the room.
Note: The tough-talking doctor clashing with authority is a time-honored science fiction staple since Dr. McCoy on TOS “Star Trek.” Sternhagen’s Dr. Lazarus is the epitome of the blue-collar factory medic; a patch ’em up, and get ’em back to work sort. Sternhagen and Connery have palpable comradely and chemistry.
After his shift ends, O’Niel is alone in his quarters when his deputy Montone pays him a visit with a tray of food. The two men talk about their careers as lawmen and the sacrifices they’ve had to make with their personal lives. Montone is divorced, and his two daughters are being raised by his ex-wife’s new husband, a computer programmer whom the girls now call ‘daddy.’ Before long, their melancholy evening is interrupted by more immediate matters.
Two new incidents of worker psychosis have now occurred on O’Neil’s watch. The first was a strangely blissful miner named Cain (Eugene Lipinski) who went into an airlock elevator in nothing but a t-shirt and pants (sans spacesuit). As the other miners were pressurizing their own suits, they couldn’t reach Cain in time to stop him. After pressurizing, they retrieve the airlock elevator and find Cain’s innards burst out from his stomach.
Note: Once again, the movie’s highly stylized ‘explosive decompressions’ are nowhere near reality, but it’s almost like Star Wars’ deliberate misuse of sound in space—sometimes you just have to accept the heightened reality of cinematic sci-fi universes, or risk missing the entertainment forest for its trees. Scientific dramatic cheats are very common within the genre, and even the most scientifically faithful movies are guilty of bending physics and chemistry to some degree.
The second incident is where O’Niel and Montone get involved; they get a call that a worker named Sagan (Steven Berkoff) has barricaded himself in a hotel room with a hooker whom he’s repeatedly beaten and is threatening to kill. O’Niel attempts to talk him down outside the hotel door, while he discreetly sends Montone into the airshaft conduits above the room. As the negotiations with the psychotic Sagan continue, Montone is in position; O’Niel counts down from ten to one. On the count of one, Montone jumps in from the ceiling grate and prematurely fires his shotgun into Sagan’s chest, killing him instantly. O’Niel is deeply upset with his deputy, who lamely defends himself by arguing Sagan lunged at him with his knife. The battered prostitute (Sharon Duce) is brought into the infirmary for her multiple injuries.
Note: The tube-like imaging chamber the woman is placed in is very similar to a current magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) chamber widely used in hospitals worldwide today. The technology was patented in the early 1970s, but mass distribution of MRIs to hospitals didn’t really begin until around the time this film went into production. Needless to say, the resolution of today’s MRI machines is (no doubt) far sharper than the 16-bit resolution seen on Dr. Lazarus’ monitors. It’s even more hilarious when Lazarus kvetches about the newfangled equipment in her lab–“new” equipment that’d be barely useful in an average hospital today.
Before the bodies can be hurriedly shipped back to Earth with no questions asked, O’Niel sneaks into the morgue and retrieves a blood sample from Sagan’s corpse. He hurriedly brings the blood to Dr. Lazarus, who instantly runs it through her med-lab computer for analysis. Unsurprisingly, she finds traces of sedatives (standard issue for all the workers) and excessive carbohydrates (poor diet) and… hello… a new type of synthetic amphetamine, one apparently capable of increasing worker productivity but with dangerous narcotic side effects. Bingo. O’Niel quickly learns that this drug is Sheppard’s secret–he’s keeping his workers hopped up on this newfound speed while the company rakes in record profits, and no one asks why. Sheppard facilitated the drug’s infiltration into the base by replacing two key workers in the base’s shipping/receiving department with two of his men: Spota (Marc Boyle) and Yario (Richard Hammatt). O’Niel immediately sets about tracking the two mens’ whereabouts on the base’s security cameras after finding their likenesses in the computer’s database.
Note: It’s at this point in the story where Lazarus and O’Niel begin to show their grudging appreciation for each other–something the audience senses when the two first meet. Just get a room, you two…
Things soon go from bad to worse when O’Niel, using security cameras, tracks Spota and Yario to a the base’s seedy strip bar. With nude dancers gyrating under blue laser-beams, the overall vibe of the club is trashy, “Blade Runner”-chic. O’Niel cuts through the visual noise, focusing only on the movements of Spota and Yario, who soon find a table with both Sheppard and O’Niel’s once-trusted deputy Montone. Whatever the scope of the operation, Montone is in on the take.
Note: Just as the industrial sci-fi design seems very much in-line with the universe of Ridley Scott’s “ALIEN,” the seedy strip club for the workers feels much more in-line with Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), which was released a year after “Outland,” so no one can accuse Peter Hyams of ripping off David Snyder’s genius production design for that film.
Later on, O’Niel and Montone play a tense game of racquetball together. After working up a hardy sweat, O’Neil cuts through the deception and tells his deputy he knows about his involvement with the drug-smuggling operation, but he doesn’t know how far Montone’s loyalty goes. Can Montone be trusted? Montone meekly tells O’Niel that he’s isn’t directly involved with Sheppard’s operation; he’s just paid to look the other way. O’Niel grudgingly assures Montone that he won’t turn him in, provided he doesn’t interfere with nailing Sheppard.
Note: It’s curious that the movie makes note of Io’s 1/6th Earth’s gravity in the opening text, yet virtually ignores that fact afterward. 1/6th g is equal to the gravity on Earth’s own moon, and as we saw in Apollo footage from the 1960s and 1970s, that even causes people wearing bulky spacesuits to hop around like slow-motion bunnies. Yet every interior scene in “Outland” appears to have full Earth gravity. Bodies move with the same mechanical resistance, and objects fall just as hard to the ground. A game of Earthly racquetball in 1/6th g should’ve seen the unencumbered O’Niel and Montone (literally) running up the walls and jumping several feet into the air to catch rebounds without breaking a sweat. So, does the mining base keep artificial gravity? If so, why wasn’t that important bit of information mentioned in the movie’s green computer text? Curious geeks want to know.
O’Niel’s pursuit of the truth begins by hunting down both Spota and Yario. First found is Spota, who doesn’t take too kindly to the notion of being arrested by a federal marshal. He leads O’Niel on a long, but thoroughly impressive chase through the workers’ barracks (up and down vertical stacks of habitation cubicles) and finally into the seedy club’s kitchen where the two fight with everything on hand, including deep fryers, and all manner of handy kitchenware, including a steak knife that slices into O’Niel’s left shoulder. The ongoing fight for control over the knife ends only after Spota realizes he’s not faster than O’Niel’s freshly loaded shotgun. Spota is taken into custody.
Note: The scope of the chase/fight between O’Niel and Spota is very impressive, as the two men (or their stuntmen) chase each other throughout the labyrinthine physical sets at Pinewood Studios. One has to remember there were no digital set extensions in those days; most everything you saw was a physical set. It all had to be physically created in real space somehow. If a miniature or matte paining was used to extend the apparent size of a set, the actors couldn’t run through the extended area, hence it all had to be ‘real.’
Holding Spota in a spacesuit in a zero-g cell, O’Niel begins to interrogate his troublesome quarry via telephone in the vacuum-pressure cell, but Spota refuses to rat out his associates. Leaving him suspended and hooked up to a flimsy oxygen line, O’Niel gives Spota time to think it over as he continues his investigation. Meanwhile, a contrite Montone is once again back on the side of law and order.
Note: Once again, the zero-g cellblock begs the question; does the station have artificial or variable gravity, and why isn’t that fact mentioned when so much other information about the operation on Io is given upfront?
The situation escalates to all-out war as Sheppard makes the next move. O’Niel returns to interrogate “tough guy” Spota again, only to find his oxygen line has been cut, and that his prisoner has explosively decompressed—just like Tarlow and Cain. With blood and guts all over the spacesuit and cell, O’Niel makes another shocking discovery; Sgt. Montone has been garroted to death and shoved into a nearby locker, his purple tongue sticking out of his mouth in asphyxiated agony. Searching his messages, O’Niel finds that his late partner left him a clue about where the drugs are being kept; in the base’s supply of frozen meat. Once there, O’Niel cuts open one of the sides of beef where he finds multiple packets of red gel in plastic–the drugs. Suddenly, O’Niel is attacked from behind by Yario. After feigning death from Yario’s garrote (O’Niel was wearing a hidden neck brace for just such an occasion), O’Niel gets back on his feet and knocks a distracted Yario unconscious. The unwavering marshal then destroys the entire supply of the narcotic. Clearly, O’Niel will not be intimidated, no matter how much force is applied.
Note: It’s a good thing O’Niel’s wife and son left the base when they did, or they would’ve been Sheppard’s next logical targets. I imagine the movie might’ve had a very different outcome if they were still on the base. The bit with the hidden neck brace may seem slightly “James Bondian,” but it makes perfect precautionary sense since O’Niel just found his partner already garroted to death a short time earlier.
Taking the war directly to administrator Sheppard, O’Niel meets him in his office, where the drug-dealing Sheppard is idly practicing his swing in front of a large screen projection of a golf course. With the gloves off, Sheppard regretfully asks O’Niel if he really destroyed all of the drugs. O’Niel assures him that he did. Sheppard concludes that O’Niel is a fool, since he would’ve cut him in on the business if he hadn’t. O’Niel is content with being a fool, and begins to walk out. But not before Sheppard stares into his eyes and says flatly, “You’re a dead man.” O’Niel refuses to acknowledge the threat and leaves.
Note: Once again, a nerdy observation (do I make any other kind?). When Shepard is practicing his golf swing, he says that he can drive a ball over 500 yards away here. So Sheppard is acknowledging Io has lower gravity, and presumably the rest of the base does as well, so why don’t we see any evidence of this anywhere else, like during the racquetball or fight scenes? Or maybe the administrator had gravity ‘turned down’ in his office? Maybe it’s turned ‘up’ in the gym? We may never know, and I have no idea why this bugs me so much, except for the reason that the movie was so specific in mentioning Io’s lower gravity in the opening text. Why mention it so distinctly if it doesn’t serve the story later on?
Intercepting a live-call from Carol in his quarters, the two have a rare chance for a chance to speak in real time since her ‘Dear John’ letter. She still loves him, and he still loves her. Carol has temporarily delayed taking Paul back to Earth, booking passage for all three of them at a later time. Getting the chance to talk with his son, he tells Paul that he loves him and that he will do his best to make the rendezvous at the station before they depart, so they can leave for Earth together as a family. After his personal call, it’s back to business as O’Niel places a tap on Sheppard’s outgoing and incoming calls. He then learns the administrator has contracted a pair of hitmen from the station to fly over on the next resupply shuttle, which is due to arrive in a few days. Marshall O’Niel is officially a marked man.
Note: In the video call scene, O’Niel is allowed to talk with his son Paul as well. Paul asks him if it’s true they will be asleep (in cryogenic suspension) during the voyage home to Earth. This scene between father and son discussing cryogenics is very similar to a scene early in Hyams’ “2010” where Roy Scheider’s Dr. Heywood Floyd tells his son Christopher that he’ll be ‘asleep’ for a year while en route to Jupiter, and asleep for another year on the way back.
In the days before the shuttle can arrive, O’Niel places surveillance cameras everywhere he can and makes a last-ditch, futile attempt to enlist some of the locals to help him. Predictably, they refuse. O’Niel has no allies left. Even the newly appointed Sgt. Ballard (Clark Peters), the man promoted after Montone’s murder, has ambiguous loyalties to Sheppard’s crime syndicate as well. He’s not reliable. Alone and despondent in the racquetball court, O’Niel is met by Lazarus, who offers to help the outmanned, outgunned marshal any way that she can. With few options, he takes the cranky doctor up on her offer, realizing she could be useful in backing his strategies. Before they can get started, and with some time remaining before the dreaded shuttle arrives, the two of them agree to get hammered one last time.
Note: The waiting before the hitmen’s shuttle is where the movie’s pacing feels a bit dragged out. It could’ve easily been trimmed by a few minutes. It starts to meander when we see O’Neil checking and rechecking what I initially thought were going to be boobytraps, but are revealed later to be additional surveillance cameras (*yawn*).
Unexpectedly, the shuttle arrives several hours early! Klaxons go off, as the entire base is thrown into a tizzy, with personnel suddenly preparing for the arrival of new miners and fresh supplies. O’Niel, of course, is awaiting the arrival of his hitmen. With cameras laid out virtually everywhere, he watches the totality of the docking area and connecting passageways from the closed circuit monitors in his office.
Note: Something that was personally disappointing for me was the arrival of the shuttle. I remember reading about the making of “Outland” in the pages of the long-defunct Starlog magazine when I was a kid, and it showed nicely detailed publicity shots of model maker Martin Bower’s miniature craft. Sadly, we barely see the vehicle in the actual film, where it is reduced to a number of quick low angles under extremely shadowy lighting. Very disappointing, since Bower’s shuttle looked amazing in the magazine photos. Bower also worked on “Space: 1999” “ALIEN” and “Flash Gordon” (1980).
Watching the shuttle passengers disembark from surveillance cameras in the relative safety of his security office, O’Niel carefully looks out for whomever isn’t a worker or some other expected visitor. He then sees two men (P. H. Moriarty, Doug Robinson) with long duffle bags shaped like rifles. These are his hitmen. The two immediately take their respective ‘luggage’ and proceed in opposite directions, with one headed towards an inflatable corridor into the main section, and another going over to the station’s large vertical greenhouse area. O’Niel takes his own weapon and goes hunting himself. In a cargo area, he meets the first man (Moriarty), who gets off a grazing shot on O’Niel’s arm. Dripping blood, the wounded O’Niel runs out of range. The hitmen are using rifles with digitally-tracking infrared scopes. O’Niel is using his old-fashioned, wooden stock rifle. High-tech vs. low-tech. Making his way into a darkened section, O’Niel runs into Lazarus, who binds his arm to stop the bleeding. With the bleeding under control, O’Niel slips into a spacesuit and prepares to get at his attackers from outside the complex. Meanwhile, he asks Lazarus to create a distraction and lure one of the pursuing hitmen into the inflatable corridor…
Lazarus, playing along in O’Niel’s deadly game of cat-and-mouse, lures the first hitman into the inflatable corridor and locks the thick pressure door behind him, just as he begins to fire in her direction. The door sealed, he is locked in the corridor. As the hitman hears a noise from outside, he sees a vague shadow from a figure silhouetted against the fabric of the inflatable section. Realizing it’s his prey, but knowing that any shot will rupture the thin material, he holds his fire–but O’Niel doesn’t. Blowing a hole into the fabric, the section depressurizes and the hitman is blown out into the void of Io’s negligible atmosphere as a bloodied blob of decompressing protoplasm.
Note: Once again, you gotta admire the moxie of this movie for sticking with that explosive decompression sight gag. It’s no surprise that the Spanish title for the movie was “Atmósfera Cero” (“Atmosphere Zero”); once again, not technically true, since Io does have a very thin atmosphere of sulfur-dioxide.
O’Niel then tracks the other hitman to the greenhouse section of the base. There, we see vertical stacks of plants being used for their oxygen and (no doubt) fresh vegetable yields. The hitman is inside the complex, but can’t find the marshal. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the base, a nervous Dr. Lazarus is startled by O’Niel’s newly minted deputy, Sgt. Ballard, not realizing that the young man is on the take as well. He calmly asks her if she knows where O’Niel is, and she accidentally blurts out that he is probably “headed to the greenhouse.” Thanks a bunch, doc…
Note: I was a bit puzzled as to why Lazarus trusted Ballard so easily when it was clear to me in their last racquetball court scene together (before they agreed to get drunk) that O’Niel didn’t trust anyone, not even his own police force. Maybe Lazarus got too drunk afterward to remember that bit of important information…?
Meanwhile, outside of the greenhouse, O’Niel grabs a detachable panel and drops in front of the translucent material lining the sides of the greenhouse, testing to see if his none-too-bright assassin will shoot at it, and risk his own death by doing so. Well, I’m not sure how much these hitmen cost, but they clearly weren’t worth it. Hitman #2 fires, and yes, folks; the relatively thin translucent glass separating the greenhouse from the void outside begins to crack…
Yes, one final basketball-headed decompression occurs (and that’s the last one, I promise) as the glass blows apart, freeze-drying all of the precious vegetation in that section. I have no idea the exact cost in breathable oxygen or fresh vegetables all of this will cost the residents of the colony, but I’m sure it’s a helluva lot. No offense to the good marshal, but that’s an enormous price just to kill two hitmen. Isn’t there some equally dangerous but less critical section of the base these men could’ve been lured to besides the greenhouse? Just saying…
With the two hitmen dead, O’Niel makes his way back into the complex by crossing what appears to nuclear energy dissipation panels, which radiate excess nuclear heat as electrical energy. You touch them and they spark, because…well, movie’s gotta movie. One more complication is added to the mix as O’Niel’s newly minted-but-corrupt deputy, Sgt. Ballard, finds his boss and attempts to finish the job the two bungling hitmen started.
Note: Too bad that one of the few characters of color in the movie has to be a dirty cop. Would’ve been far more interesting if we think Ballard is going to kill O’Niel, only to see him turn and become an unexpected ally at the last minute. Oh well. This was forty years ago, and movies in those days were not terribly progressive. Actor Clark Peters also appeared as the ill-fated character of “Harry” in the 2014 movie “John Wick,” starring Keanu Reeves.
The two lawmen, one crooked and one true, battle in their spacesuits, with each of them touching and sparking the panels. After a long and arduous combat, O’Niel pushes the younger man to his death down the vertical height of the panels. With the two hitmen ballooned to death and Sgt. Ballard doing a fatal Humpty Dumpty dive, O’Niel is now free to focus on the source of the Con-Am mine’s corruption, administrator Sheppard.
A bleeding, exhausted O’Niel makes his way into the bar, where a smug, overconfident Sheppard sits passively at a table. Seeing the approaching O’Niel looking like something the cat barfed up, Sheppard calmly gets to his feet. The barely walking O’Niel is too tired to read Sheppard his Miranda rights, and simply says, “Oh f–k it,” as he punches the arrogant drug dealer right in the kisser. Lights out for Sheppard. Point O’Niel.
Note: Here’s hoping O’Niel did remember to read Sheppard his rights at some point, because it’d be a hell of thing if the crime lord administrator was released on a technicality. I’m also hoping the greenhouse’s earlier destruction didn’t, well, threaten the base’s remaining oxygen and food supply. Little details…
With Sheppard presumably in custody, and Io back to some sort of status quo (I hope?), O’Niel decides his job here is done and that he wants to join his family on the shuttle bound for Earth. He phones ahead and tells his family he will be meeting them at the station after all. Lazarus comes to say her goodbyes to the lawman, thanking him for the exciting break in the mining station’s monotony. O’Niel sends a final text to his wife, which is imposed over a final shot of Io, telling her that he’s looking forward to sleeping with her for an entire year…
Style over substance (abuse)?
There is incredible ambition and care taken with Philip Harrison’s rich production design and Martin Bower’s painstakingly detailed miniatures. “Outland” costume designer John Mollo won an Oscar for his work on “Star Wars” several years earlier. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt would go on to shoot the first two “Lethal Weapon” movies. Clearly there was a lot of talent behind this movie, and it’s all onscreen. For 1981, the film’s look was state-of-the-art; however, 40 years later the bulky cathode-ray tube TVs, Jules Verne-style pressure suits, and wooden-stock shotguns give the movie an almost steampunk look. That said, there was clearly a lot of craftsmanship poured into the UK’s famed Pinewood Studios during the making of this movie.
The movie’s walls and corridors are thick with grime and industrial sludge, save for the sterile infirmary or the inflatable corridors to the station’s outer reaches. Many of the sets (particularly O’Neil’s squad room and Lazarus’ infirmary) appear to have been salvaged, or at least lovingly recreated a few years later for Hyam’s “2010” (1984). The technology looks retro-futuristic (40 years hence), but functional. The miners’ off-duty spaces consist of stacked, minimally-private cubicles (fittingly) resembling a makeshift prison instead of living quarters. The living-cubicles concept would be resurrected for the spaceship Leonov in Hyams’ “2010” as well. Uniforms throughout the complex are very generic; baseball caps, button-down shirts and sneakers, with the off-duty (all-male) miners wearing only cotton thermal underwear. Given its stylings, “Outland” could easily and comfortably exist within the “ALIEN” universe as well. However, the movies were produced by rival studios, so this remains the domain of fan speculation. The movie’s look was also one of the admitted inspirations for director Duncan Jones’ retro styled, 2009 sci-fi movie “Moon”.
With an estimated budget of over $15 million (in 1981 money), it’s a real shame that Peter Hyams’ lavish vision for the film’s look isn’t matched in storytelling ambition. The film is little more than a beat-by-beat remake of the 1952 western classic “High Noon,” with Sean Connery ably filling in for Gary Cooper. Even the ticking clock of the incoming shuttle in “Outland”‘s final act is lifted directly from its western predecessor’s stagecoach arrival. The only new elements present are the deep space setting and the addition of narcotics trafficking. Peter Hyams is a solid action filmmaker, if not the most original storyteller.
Since 1981, we’ve learned a lot about Jupiter. The planet’s moon count is up to 79 now (dating this column someday, no doubt), with Io as one of the four larger “Galilean satellites” (the four moons of Jupiter visible with backyard telescopes, as discovered by Galileo Galilei in the early 17th century). “Outland” was made on the heels of the Voyager 1 & 2’s 1979 flybys of the Jovian system, so we didn’t know nearly as much then as we do now (post-Galileo/Juno spacecraft visits). Io’s vulcanism, first spotted by Caltech scientist Linda Morabito, was a new and exciting discovery in 1979. However, the movie’s notion of mining titanium on a moon whose entire surface changes every few years due to extreme vulcanism is a bad one. Io’s constantly shifting surface would make physical maps and globes (as we see in Sheppard’s office) useless within a few years. Not to mention that Io is far more abundant in sulfur, silicates and geothermal energy rather than titanium. Setting up an expensive mining colony for titanium on Io would be like panning for gold at the bottom of the ocean; sure, you might find some, but it’s hardly worth the trouble.
Note: We also know now that vulcanism occurs on other moons of the outer solar system, such as Saturn’s Enceladus and Neptune’s Triton, both of which spout huge period plumes of water-ice.
One of the frustrating aspects of this otherwise solid thriller is that it takes virtually no storytelling advantage of setting its story on Io. Why not mine for geothermal energy or some other more abundant native element? The opening of the movie throws some fun facts about Io at us, such as its native 1/6th gravity, which it rarely exploits. Objects and people fall to the ground as heavily as they do on Earth. Manual labor, fisticuffs, and even games of racquetball seem every bit as exhausting. “Outland” uses the same cheat with Io’s gravity that “Space: 1999” did with the moon’s; it only seems to matter when the characters are outside the confines of the base. If the mining station had artificial gravity of some kind inside, why was it never mentioned, or even exploited to foil the bad guys somehow? What was the point of setting the story on Io? If titanium alone was the goal, the miners would’ve had more luck in the asteroid belt. It’d also be a lot closer to Earth as well (less than half the distance, in fact). These are sadly missed (or ignored) opportunities for scientific realism and storytelling logic.
Sean Connery’s Space Odyssey.
One thing the movie gets very right was the casting of the late, great Sean Connery (1930-2020), whose unique brand of macho vulnerability in “Outland” calls to mind Roy Scheider’s “Chief Brody” in “JAWS (1975)”. Like Brody, Connery’s William O’Niel is a naive, headstrong interloper who steps into local corruption and does his best. Connery had an underrated range that included drama, comedy (particularly the darker variety), musical-fantasy (“Darby O’Gill and the Little People”) and lighter action-adventure (see: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”; easily my favorite of the Indiana Jones’ movies). Connery isn’t doing the debonair, invulnerable 007 Bond-routine in “Outland.” He’s playing a tough federal marshal, yes, but he’s also a family man who bleeds, feels pain, and isn’t afraid to admit when he needs help. One of his best scenes in the film is when the countdown to the shuttle’s arrival is nearly up, and O’Niel asks a few locals if they wouldn’t mind helping out their new lawman. They selfishly remind O’Niel that he is supposed to protect them, not the other way around. When they ask O’Niel why he doesn’t get help from his deputies, a resigned O’Niel simply and sadly states, “My men…are shit.” The line is delivered with great vulnerability, not arrogance.
“Outland” was also not the star’s first foray into science fiction, either; he also rode around on horseback (sporting a mankini and ponytail) in the dystopian 23rd century of John Boorman’s highly experimental “Zardoz” (1974); a bizarre mix of Wells’ “The Time Machine” and Monty Python satire. Say what you will about “Outland”‘s uninspiring ‘drugs-in-space’ story, but writer/director Hyams’ made a brilliant choice when he cast Sean Connery to keep it together. Connery goes into this murky setting and gives the audience someone to root for. The actor’s earthy performance adds a great deal of value to this handsomely made, but otherwise unchallenging sci-fi/action flick. Much like the O’Niel character in the film, Connery saves the day (and the movie), then goes home.
“Outland” can be rented for streaming on Amazon Prime video for $2.99 ($3.99 on YouTube) or purchased contact-free from Amazon.com on Blu-Ray (prices vary). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 523,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest (I have received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine, in fact), but it will take time for herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines prevent unwitting transmission. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe.