Sunday, November 2, 2014

Outland: High Noon in space?

You frequently hear Outland (if you've ever heard of it at all) being described as High Noon in space. That's misleading. The first three-quarters of the film is a mash-up of a serious science fiction movie and a somewhat routine (but solid) 80s cop flick. Sean Connery plays a space marshal who's been assigned to a mining outpost on IO, one of the moons of Jupiter. Early on his wife, frustrated with Connery's job, leaves him because their son hides pictures of Earth rather than the kinds of pictures boys usually hide at that age.


Peter Boyle plays the operation manager who is obviously mixed in with the drug-related subplot. When Connery introduces himself to the crew he's welcomed warmly. That is until Boyle's character has something to add: a thinly disguised warning to look the other way every once and a while. Everyone picks up on it. And, instantly, we know Boyle is the villain even though the clues are subtle.

Jumping back: the film opens during an otherwise routine mining job on the surface of IO. One of the miners (John Ratzenberger, nearly unrecognizable in a space suit) begins screaming about spiders. He's hallucinating, but the other miners think he's just joking around until his suit is depressurized and, well, his head explodes. Yes, this is one of the many science fiction films which believe human bodies explode in a vacuum and space habitats magically provide Earth-like gravity. You know what? This one gets a pass. There will be many more head/body explosions and each one is as dazzling as the last. The fact that, within the colony, there is seemingly one gee of gravity is probably less of an oversight and more a restriction of the budget.

It's not the first instance of a miner going berserk in the colony. Sean Connery quickly discovers an imported drug may be to blame. As the investigation unfolds, he makes friends with the outpost's head doctor, played by the extremely likable Francis Sternhagen. The way the banter flies between these two is as real as it is entertaining. It's a bit flirty and often very funny. Peter Boyle (also very good in the movie) doesn't like what Connery's up to and tells him something along the lines of "If you're after more money, you're very smart. But if you're serious, you're very stupid." Connery isn't after more money, of course, and we wonder why he's being so suicidal in his plan to bring Boyle down. There isn't a clear answer, yet it doesn't seem like a cheat, either. Connery, like Gary Cooper  before him, just has to be the hero. We, as an audience, are above questioning that.

Later on the film changes gears. Boyle hires some hitmen to kill Connery. They're on the next shuttle from the nearest space station and there are clocks placed throughout the colony, counting the hours down until its arrival. Naturally, Connery tries to recruit some of the miners and other policemen to help him, but everyone's too cowardly to stand up to Boyle's regime. One of the miners says, "Don't you have men to help you do that?" Connery replies, "My men are shit." Yes, it's very much like High Noon and it's unashamed that it is. That the last quarter of the film plays like the classic western isn't a detriment, it's the entire point.

But there's a plothole here: Boyle wants to kill Connery so he doesn't tell corporate about the drugs. However, the comms aren't severed. All Connery has to do, in theory, is call corporate and let them know what's going on before the hitmen arrive. Hell, that's all anyone has to do to put an end to Boyle's rule, but not a single person thinks to do it. Doesn't matter, though. Outland is still a very fun movie, especially if you're a Sean Connery fan. And really, who the hell isn't?

The best thing about Outland is its set design. The civilian quarters look more like a prison than a comfortable place to sleep, which is pretty accurate to what living in space will really be like, at least when compared to other movies: oxygen is going to be relatively rare out there. There's no reason to think a real mission in space will afford privacy to each of its crew members, not to mention haul around so much extra oxygen for something so nonessential. It really grounds the film in reality by relating the miners with real-life offshore oil workers.

I say the movie is routine, but not as a critique. High Noon itself was quite routine in terms of script development and it's still a classic. Director Peter Hyams is quite good at routine. Plot has always been one of his strong suits and his technical abilities get him steady work in Hollywood. Some artists are good at working within the system. Some can only exist outside of it. Both are equally admirable, at least when they manage to produce something as good as this. Think about it: Hyams later made a pretty decent sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a feat which was all the more likely to fail miserably than be good. That alone is an indication of his talent.

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