Written & Directed by Peter Hyams
In 1981, you might think the juggernaut of Star Wars had crushed any desire by Hollywood to make intelligent, more adult science fiction. Yet here comes Outland, a film set on a mining colony with a complete absence of aliens or space battles. Instead, writer-director Peter Hyams translates a plot commonly found in Westerns and places in outer space. The result is seamless, showing how timeless and transcendent certain narratives are. Hyams admitted he wanted to make a Western only, but the success and boom of the science fiction genre caused him to rethink the setting of his idea. He reasoned that the types of stories being told in the 1970s and early 80s were the same you found in Western just repurposed. Thus we get Outland which is High Noon on the moon of Io.
Federal Marshall William O’Neil (Sean Connery) is assigned for an eleven-month tour at Con-Am 27 mining outpost on Io, a moon of Jupiter. The facility extracts the titanium found on the moon and makes a nice profit off of it. Unfortunately, because of the isolated nature of the outpost, delivery ships arrive only once a week, and the various laborers and admins are left to fend for themselves the rest of the time. A series of bizarre suicides begin happening shortly after O’Neil’s arrival, and the more he investigates, the clearer it becomes they are caused by something linked to Sheppard (Peter Boyle), the general manager of the mining colony. Finally, O’Neil finds an ally in jaded colony doctor Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), and he’s going to need her help as it becomes clear Sheppard is the one with everyone on his side.
Outland is a film that looks spectacular. It’s an aesthetic continuation of Ridley Scott’s future, first glanced in Alien. This future is focused on the industrial side of life, very functional spaces designed less with comfort in mind than purpose. Like Alien, there are themes centered around the exploitation of labor by corporations. The workers at the outpost have all their needs met by the general manager and company, including illegal ones. Because they are so remote, the law has become flexible, but O’Neil intends to stop this. The drugs running through the colony are now deadly, and he wants to stop their flow. As much as I loved Alien, I wish we had been able to see more of the world the characters worked in. Outland is essentially that part of Alien for the whole runtime.
I was disappointed with how shallow the worldbuilding ended up being in Outland. The film never goes too deep with its characters or world resulting in a story that stays surface level. I don’t think we ever get to know O’Neil that well and we especially remain distant from the supporting cast. Out of all the characters, I felt we got the best depth with Dr. Lazarus, and even then, I would have preferred to get to know her better. The result is a movie with a tight hour and a half runtime, but this is an instance where I wouldn’t have minded it being thirty minutes longer if it meant we learned more about the world and characters.
I do appreciate the film’s desire to present capitalist exploitation taken off the planet. Based on the direction human civilization is going, if we manage to survive the climate collapse, I fully expect the future to play out much like this. Human labor will be seen the same way it is here on Earth, a resource to be extracted for the lowest cost and pushed to the furthest extremes. I especially like how nonchalant Sheppard is when confronted by O’Neil. He’s been through this with marshals before, and he just wants to know what the price is to get O’Neil to look the other way. This marshall is different, though, but the movie basically drops Sheppard as a character at this point. He does order a hit crew sent out on the next delivery ship, but the general manager fades away as an active obstacle in O’Neil’s way.
Ultimately, Outland is undoubtedly worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. The film is very satisfying in delivering a tightly written classic story set against a retro-futuristic landscape. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith evokes the same feelings of desolation and loneliness his work on Alien did, and so it makes a great companion piece to that movie. There were apparently designs on remaking Outland in 2009, but nothing has come up since. I wouldn’t mind a remake, and in the right hands, it could be a spectacular modern science fiction film.