In the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a wave of hard-edged science fiction films that rebutted both the far-future utopianism of Star Trek and the mythic heroism of Star Wars. Instead, they focused on how the grimmer social and economic realities of today could persist long into the future, and how the greatest technological advances we imagine for ourselves might not advance our state of being very much at all. We toil, we grind ourselves down to nubs, we make questionable choices to relieve our pain, and we do it all over again because we either don’t know how or because some very powerful people in very high places prefer for things to be that way. And one of the best examples of this school of dark, and often dystopian, science fiction is Outland, a kind of western in space starring Sean Connery at a time when he was trying to get himself re-established as a star now that his turn as James Bond was over. (Yeah, I know it’s hard to imagine a time when Sean Connery had to look for work, but believe me, it happened.)
The story takes place on Io, one of the larger moons of Jupiter, and site of Con-Am 27, a titanium mining outpost that is home to a little over a thousand miners, maybe 250 facility staff and administration, and a handful of Federal Marshals stationed there to uphold the law. Con-Am 27 is a harsh industrial facility with few creature comforts, and is the sort of place one goes to when they have no better options. The recently appointed new Head Marshal, William O’Niel, doesn’t seem to mind getting stuck in bad posts, but it’s too much for his poor wife and son, who have had enough of living in deep space. So, they leave him to go back to Earth. There is a ticket for O’Niel to join them, if he likes. All he has to do is walk away from this awful job of his. But when a wave of lethal psychotic episodes spread across the facility, O’Neil investigates and discovers an illicit narcotics operation and systemic corruption on the station. Management keeps a lid on things by buying off the law or sending them out of the airlock, and gives O’Niel the same options. Only O’Neil isn’t for sale, and he’s not about to go out any airlock, either. So he sets in motion a standoff between himself and the assassins management dispatches to rid Con-Am 27 of this meddlesome tin star. All by himself, O’Neil’s biggest strength is he actually has something to fight for: a chance to go home with his family.
This is a movie that absolutely destroys any romance about being in outer space. Io is a harsh, ugly environment and the remarkable vista of nearby Jupiter is really just a reminder of how far you are from the one place where you can enjoy the sun on your skin without wearing an environment suit. For all of the wondrous technology that enables people to travel to Jupiter, they are no better off than if they had stayed home and worked any other heavy industrial job with harsh working conditions and terrible pay. The workers live in tiny bunks. The common areas all look like prison cafeterias. And the bars are the kind of dingy, dark recess that makes people acknowledge how miserable they are before they begin intoxicating themselves into temporary forgetfulness. When the Marshals gear up with their shotguns to blast some fool for causing trouble on the station, you get the idea that as long as folks don’t think they might catch a stray round, they’re actually grateful for the excitement.
Outland’s gritty tone is best carried by the characters, though. From the corrupt station manager to the burned-out company doctor to the unreliable deputies to the strung-out workers…everybody on Con-Am 27 is living an unsustainable existence, and they know it. As O’Niel, Sean Connery lends a kind of weary gravitas to the role that really makes Outland work. Accustomed to seeing Connery as a suave, youthful playboy spy with a smirk on his face and a drink in his hand, the Connery we get in Outland comes as a bit of a shock. Grizzled and worn out, he comes off like somebody who has gone through all of his second chances and is only now just realizing it. There is an underlying anger to O’Niel that drives him; he’s a very small cog in a very large machine, and has finally resigned himself to that fact. He just needs one last chance to put the hurt on all of the greed and corruption around him before he can finally turn his back on it.
There is a really fun police story baked in here, with a couple of outstanding chases and standoffs, and the final act, where O’Niel faces off with the assassins sent to dispatch him, sets up some fantastic action sequences that, thanks to the innovative way in which they were shot, still hold up today. But the best part of it all is the movie’s moment of truth, before the assassins arrive, shotguns begin firing, and people get exposed to the vacuum of space. Everybody on the station knows some hired guns are coming for O’Niel on the next supply shuttle, and they turn their backs on him. O’Niel asks the station for help anyway, perhaps out of desperation, and perhaps because he figures that if he’s going to die, he’s going to make the rest of this crooked station admit to itself that if he does not prevail, thee jerks will have his blood on their hands. You gotta love a guy who pauses to tell off the whole town before he fights on their behalf. The irony of Outland is that the frontier could use more O’Niels in it. What it does best, however, is push them away.