Outland (1981) - Rotten Tomatoes

This Peter Hyams-directed, Sean Connery-starring sci-fi western didn’t get a great critical or commercial reception upon release in 1981 (according to Box Office Mojo it was the 44th highest grossing film in the year it released), but has since gone on to enjoy cult status.

Marshal William O’Niel (Connery) is moved to the mining base on Jupiter’s moon, Io, with his wife and son. He’s immediately warned by the general manager of the base Sheppard (played by the ever-reliable Peter Boyle) that he’s to allow the miners to play as hard as they work, but a series of fatal incidents leads him to uncover the truth behind the record-breaking productivity on the facility. Can he bring those responsible to justice, despite facing apathy at best and violent, direct hostility at worst?

Connery is, as always, Connery. Joking aside, he’s perfect as the stoic, determined lawman – so laser-focused on justice that no amount of bribery or coercion will stand in his way.

Though the setting could easily be earthbound (Hyams originally wanted to make a Western before hitting on the idea of setting the movie in space), good use is made of the environment – and the sense of a working, genuinely functional and worn down facility is seriously impressive. The design of the mining base is the real star of the show here; it’s a tangible, authentic feeling colony that seems to fit together as more than just a disparate series of sets. There’s a palpable sense of claustrophobia too, especially in the cramped, multi-storey living and cleaning quarters. The zero-G prison cells and the base’s hexagonal connecting tunnels are other neat touches that really make an impression; nothing feels out of place or anything less than functional to the way the facility is built and how it works.

The model work and practical effects are pretty nicely handled for the most part too, with only a few shots in the climax feeling a little too over-ambitious for the film’s budget. The bloody decompression effects are a bit daft-looking too, but the more subtle gore is well done.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is excellent too, though a little too close to Alien in its opening moments and far too cheesily upbeat in the closing shot. Inbetween those disappointing extremes are some fantastic pieces of music, however – of particular note are the pulsing electronic tracks accompanying the scenes in the station’s bar, which (especially given the film’s 1981 vintage) amazingly still sound futuristic. That may be something to do with the current vogue for retro-futurism in electronic music circles, but even so it’s an impressive achievement, forty years on from Outland’s release.

Though the tech is noticeably old-school, it has a clunky, clicky, analogue feel that gives the movie its distinctly blue collar, lo-fi aesthetic. There’s the impression that in-movie corporation Con-Am could almost be a rival to the Alien franchise’s shady Weyland-Yutani company – it wouldn’t be a surprise if the two movies were revealed to take place in the same universe.

There’s some tense, exciting action sequences with suitably violent outcomes; it struck me that Connery doesn’t come across as invincible or as having the upper hand most of the time. He works well with the station’s doctor (brilliantly played by Frances Sternhagen), but on the whole the female characters in the story feel a bit sidelined and ill-served by the setting, which places most of the featured women in thankless roles.

It’s nonetheless a great old school sci-fi film, however – and the phenomenal production design really does elevate the material. It’s crazy to think that Sean Connery was already in his 50s by the time he played O’Niel in Outland; he was still a believable blue collar badass in any case. Outland feels like the kind of film that big studios don’t make any more; hard-edged, adult science fiction that tells a satisfyingly self-contained story – with plenty of incidental, worldbuilding detail that creates a real sense of time and place. Though it may point to a depressing future where nothing except the scenery has changed for downtrodden, exploited workers, it does at least give our main character a shot at a better life.

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