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My Favorite Movies #87: Outland

April 21, 2014
Outland movie poster

I was born in 1970. I grew up in a world that was hot on the heels of Star Trek’s optimism about a spacebound humanity, and in the throes of Star Wars’ use of deep space as a backdrop for heroic fantasy. And in the middle, there were endless knockoffs and mashups of those two, all against a real-world culture that had won the space race, and saw the darkness beyond our atmosphere as the province of heroes, pioneers and the champions of the future. Never once did I think that space was an inherently dangerous place, or that distant worlds might be somewhere that I probably didn’t want to visit. That is…until I saw Outland.

Now, before I go into any further depth about this absolutely fantastic story about the Wild West in space (or more accurately, a rendition of High Noon on a moon of Jupiter), it must be said that this movie owes a lot of its look and tone to Ridley Scott’s Alien, which preceded Outland by a few years. Among the movies I’ve seen, Alien was the earliest one to portray deep space as it probably will be by the time we are going there regularly: a really awful place with only marginally less awful places to visit within it, populated only by those too desperate to make it anywhere else, and those too amoral to turn up a good opportunity to profit from misery and hardship when they see one.

But I didn’t see Alien first. I saw Outland. And man, did this movie blow me away. Set on a grimy mining colony on Jupiter’s moon of Io, Sean Connery is a hardass federal marshal sent to police a place that doesn’t particularly want to be policed. The miners bust their hump pulling ore, the bosses juice them all up with drugs to be more productive, and the lawmen are supposed to look the other way. If the odd miner goes nuts, takes off his spacesuit when he’s out on the moon’s surface and suffers explosive decompression as a result, that’s just the price of doing business. If a miner has a a psychotic episode while visiting a prostitute and offers to carve her up with his knife, well, a certain saying about making omelets comes to mind.

Outland Montage 01Of course, Sean Connery’s marshal can’t look the other way. He’s not quite the one good cop in a dirty town. He’s just a guy who does his job in wherever the marshal service sends him, and it’s costing him everything. His wife and kid leave shortly after they arrive on Io, and suddenly Connery, who is still stuck on this godforsaken moon, in this godforsaken camp, has nothing to focus on except his job. His job got him out here. And his job – or his faithful execution of it – is what’ll give him permission to go home again. And so he takes on a corrupt set of mining bosses, enforcers and fellow cops on the take to break down what amounts to a drug ring in space. Will he clean up the station forever? Of course not. Will he get rewarded for his work? No; he’ll probably get demoted or dismissed. Will the bad guys he contends with finally see justice? Some will. But honestly, in an environment run by companies line Con-Am, there are far more scumbags willing to deal dirt to make money than there are crusaders willing to go out and confront them.

Outland never pretends otherwise, and in that, it really succeeds in telling the story of an honest, if burned-out god guy who would really rather not rise to the occasion, but finds himself doing so anyway, and making sure that one or two others do so, too. There is a cynicism throughout the story, since it is set in such a morally rotten place, and filled with people who are either predatory or simply too ambivalent to care one way or the other about who is preying upon whom. One gets the notion that nobody really cares about the victims in this particular racket because they are all somebody’s victim, in the end, and somehow, somebody else is also their victim, too. It’s like an ecosystem comprised entirely of carnivores.

This was the first time I’d ever come across a story like this, especially one based in space. Raised on a steady diet of good versus evil, the moral grayness of Outland really took my by surprise. It fascinated me, as well. I found the marshal’s willingness to play the bad guys’ game by the bad guys’ rules to be really compelling stuff. (Why didn’t he just shake everybody down when they came off the relief shuttle? Because that wouldn’t prove anything. He had to beat the bad guys on their own terms, to show them that even when they have stacked the deck, there are still players sharp enough out there to beat them. Connery’s marshal doesn’t succeed because he is so good. He succeed because he is too hard-headed to know when to back down from an impossible fight, and too touch to let himself lose once the fight has begun. This is the kind of hero that you started to see more and more of in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in an America disillusioned by Vietnam and starting to question its own heroic myth-making. And I loved it.

Outland montage 02As a writer, this movie spoke to me on a number of different levels. The characters, which I’ve already touched on, were all damaged goods of one kind or another, either out to hurt somebody, or living with their own inadequacies, or both. It was the first time I’d seen Sean Connery not as James Bond, and he just rocked at it. Instead of the suave superspy, he came off as that hardassed uncle, or father of a friend you had, who’d been in the war and liked to drink a little too much maybe, and you just knew could kick ass and take names. And he did. But he didn’t do it alone. With him were an equally compelling set of characters who really sold me on the premise of space being an unattractive place to be. There is the wife who cuts out because she can’t stand living on these horrible stations anymore. (You can sympathize with her, even if you can’t exactly forgive her for leaving her husband behind.) There is the company doctor, who has even less incentive to do a good job than the marshalls, and yet finds herself pressed in heroic duty anyway. And there is the cop who is perhaps a little less crooked than everybody else who raises the valid notion that if our hero just walked away from all of this, nobody would think less of him for it.

The setting of Con-Am 27 was also a major part of why I love this movie. The mine is a sprawling combination of space station and factory, and absolutely none of it looks inviting, attractive or comfortable. Even the good sections of it are filled with reminders of the building’s limitations. A scene in the mine boss’s office features a screen against which he shoots imaginary golf balls. Why? Because he can’t go out and shoot golf in space, like real-life astronauts did a few years before this movie was made, because going outside for anything is a stupid and dangerous idea. In a separate scene when we see a miner shoot himself up with the drugs that would later turn him into a dangerous psychotic, we see him do the deed in his bunk, which is about the size of a coffin. He’s out there in a area where theoretically you could build in any direction forever, and yet, resources are so scarce that all the privacy he can be afforded comes in a dingy cot barely large enough for him to lie in. Awesome.

There is a low-tech feel to this movie that I loved, as well. Lots of space adventures ultimately look dated, especially if they were made in the 70s or 80s, and the filmmakers failed to provide a sufficiently enduring vision of what computers might look like in 30 or 40 years. Outland manages to avoid that, for the most part, by never trying to show technology in a way that generates a gee-whiz vision of the future. It moves technology laterally, taking stuff we’d already imagined and putting it all in a really dingy workplace far, far from home. The result is a setting you really believe, made even more believable by ace cinematography and use of light and shadow that gives the entire movie a visual timelessness that makes it as much of a good watch today as it ever was. Some of the players in it look a lot younger than we are used to seeing them today. (Hey…what that a young John Ratzenberg’s head that exploded in the first few minutes of the movie?) But much like, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Outland features a cascade of creative decisions that gives this story an immensely long shelf life for a science fiction vehicle. It isn’t often that I love a movie so much for its technical merits, but this is definitely one of those times.

Outland Montage 03Now, you could say that Outland is merely High Noon in space, and to an extent, you’d be right. The story is much the same – an unwanted lawman is set in an isolated town with pervasive crime, a need to combat it, and amid a whole bunch of people who will not lift a finger to help him. And indeed, writer and director Peter Hyams really wanted to make a Western, but after being told no by studio heads enough times, he decided to just set one in space. The comparison’s to High Noon are by no means inaccurate, since Hyams wanted us to feel that way. And what I love is that’s okay. It’s alright to take a classic story of one genre and drop it wholesale into another genre and then ask yourself what parts of it still work, what parts don’t, and what you would have to alter to make sure the whole thing feels like it succeeds on its own terms. That is not easy to do. But Outland does it. And it does it in spades.

A good example of this is how Outland employs High Noon’s great device of a countdown clock that ticks away the moments until a group of hired guns arrives in town to take care of the troublesome lawman. The ticking clock is a wonderful device that constantly raises the tension while simultaneously raising the point that the same thing that is bringing the lawman’s intended doom is also the thing that lawman could use to get the hell away, if he wanted. But the clock also makes a mockery of the technology that makes any of the story possible. It is indeed a wonder that you can go from Earth to Io in this setting, and that you can build a sustainable colony in the darkest reaches of the solar system. And what gets done with it? The kind of workplace that hearkens back to the early industrial age with its serious disregard for worker safety, the kind of transit system that seems most efficient at delivering drugs and assassins, and the kind of society where the only guy worth trusting is the aging burnout with a bad job, a worse marriage and a sawed-off shotgun.

When I began to write science fiction of my own, I never really tried to draw on stories like Star Wars or Star Trek for my inspiration. Don’t get me wrong – those things inspire me. And they inspire me in huge ways, as evinced by the fact that we won’t get to those movies on this list of reviews for quite some time. But the kinds of worlds that come to my imagination most easily are not the clean, bright futures of Gene Roddenberry, or the mystic and heroic starscapes of George Lucas. They are the run-down and miserable places where mines like Con-Am 27 were the best that things could get. That future speaks loudly to me as a creator. It is dark and it is cynical, and I dearly hope I’m just being too pessimistic when I write. But it is a future where, when the best qualities shine, they shine most brightly. That is why Outland is my kind of story, in my kind of setting, with my kind of heroes.

And that, my friends, is why Outland is one of my favorite movies.

Outland Montage 04

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