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Outland Is High Noon in Outer Space for Sean Connery
The ultimate enemy is still man in the future and on the moons of Jupiter
The 1981 science-fiction film Outland is not a feature that is widely or all that fondly remembered. Even among serious Sean Connery fans, Zardoz (1974) is always going to be listed as his top science-fiction outing. And Meteor (1979) as his worst. Outland was a miss when originally released earning about $17 million at the box office in the United States, a disappointing figure for a big budget space film trying to draw in the audiences that flocked to see Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars around the same time period.
''In a mining town, on the second moon of Jupiter....'' ominously intones the narrator of the original trailer. Upon hearing the revelation about the film's and, subsequently, its genre, the audience is expecting fantasy. The guess, while logical, is not accurate. Outland is as real as our current world, just a number of years in the future.
The outer space setting of the film certainly establishes the feature as science-fiction. On the second moon of Jupiter, you do not find any aliens in the mist or otherworldly entities. Nor is there anything that occurs on the moon that we would not find on earth.
''The ultimate enemy is still man.'' These were further words spoken by the narrator in the film's original trailer and the words do set Outland apart from other genre features released at the time.... maybe a little too far.
Likely, the minor failure of Outland rested in the fact the film was closer to Blade Runner than the other more fantasy based science-fiction outings. (By minor failure, it earned at the U.S. box office what it cost to produce although the film did go on to earn more in other parts of the world) The dark, grim world of this wing of science-fiction rarely draws audiences that prefer the more escapist form of the genre.
Outland: Federal Marshals in Space
The plot is equal parts murder mystery/melodrama/police procedural and, most substantially, a western. As many have duly noted, the classic western High Noon partially influenced the narrative.
William O'Neil is the new Federal Marshall in charge at the mining colony on one of the moons of Jupiter. Things are not very quiet in the busy mining colony. Suicides and psychotic episodes among the minors are frequent occurrences. Three incidents resulting in death have occurred in the mere two weeks since O'Neil took his post. Making matters more troubling for O'Neil, his wife and son have left him to return to earth, bored with the horribly lonely conditions of going from one outer space mining colony to the next.
O'Neil is not one to indulge in vice so he throws himself into his work. In particular, O'Neil is curious as to why so many men have suffered mental breakdowns in only a six month period. After a man nearly kills a prostitute and is shot by a marshal (Seemingly too quickly), O'Neil studies the dead man's autopsy report. His bloodstream has the strongest amphetamine ever produced, a drug developed by the military.
Clearly, the man had been taking it to work massively long hours in the mine. What he did not know relatively short term use of the drug causes mental collapse.
O'Neil now knows a drug ring is operating in the mine and supplying it to workers...but who is the supplier?
O'Neil soon comes to the realization that it is the manager of the colony, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), working in conjunction with the board of the corporation to supply drugs to the miners in order to increase productivity. Since O'Neil cannot be bought off and makes it clear he will bring Sheppard down, O'Neil is marked for death by hitmen brought to the colony.
The miners and his fellow marshals are too fearful to help him, so O'Neil is strictly on his own.....
Outland and Its Place Among Science-Fiction Films
Outland can be best described as the quintessential Three Star Classic. It's a good movie that is deserved of its minor cult status. In no way is Outland a classic of the genre. There are quite a few script bumps in the film. For one, Sheppard can place a phone call to have hitmen sent within a day or so, but a federal marshal cannot call his superiors and ask for backup?
The film does have its charm as the gritty, claustrophobic environment the film takes place in heightens much of the tension. While the setting is fantastic, the action is kept real and believable. Made long before the advent of CGI, this is a science-fiction film reliant on models and miniatures to create the exterior of the colony and very well thought out and brilliant art direction and set construction to bring the interiors to life. In a way, the interior mimics a submarine and this further adds to the realism. As the saying goes, sometime less is more and the minimalist interiors draw the audience into the proceedings.
What does make the film intriguing is it acts as a character study.
O'Neil: A Western Hero in a Science-Fiction Movie
What motivates O'Neil? Why does he not look the other way when doing so is easy? While the other characters in the film are thin, an attempt at drawing out depth in O'Neil is made. It works. At first, we see O'Neil is horribly bothered his wife and son have left him. O'Neil pushes himself into his work as a means of escaping his troubles with his family. The irony here is O'Neil employs escapism in a science-fiction movie that is atypically not an escapist feature.
We also learn O'Neil has a reputation for having a ''big mouth'' and this got him transferred away from his previous post. Troubles seem to follow him in all his assignments and his arrival on the outskirts of Jupiter is a garbage assignment. An assignment, in O'Neil's own words that is the type he deserves. He superiors think very little of him and he is of no value to the agency. When O'Neil learns about the drug trafficking, he realizes he was sent here because it was felt he would be someone to just look the other way. Yet, something strange happens. O'Neil wonders if the low opinion others have of him is true. Bringing down the drug conspiracy give him the chance to prove them wrong and once again find value in himself.
If nothing else, the presence of Sean Connery in the film combined with the action of the climax makes Outland a fine science-fiction film to check out if for nothing other than as a curiosity piece from the early 1980s.