Random Film of the Week: Outland

Outland was and is one of those films that never quite got the recognition it deserved and yes, still deserves. “Was” in terms of its at the time quietly groundbreaking visual effects and initially successful (but eventually disappointing) run at the box office back in 1981, and “Is” for the fact that it’s suffered through some pretty lousy transitions to home video over the years.

The recent (and thankfully, mostly excellent) Blu-Ray release makes up for the terrible DVDs from 1997 and the much better (but still not quite perfect) 2007 DVD reissue from a few years back, but for some reason, the “making of” feature found on the DVD is missing in action on the Blu-Ray version. OK, “Who didn’t want to pay whom for what  and why?” I have to ask (nicely, though… nicely).

It’s almost as if Warner Bros. Home Video is just getting the film out as a bare minimum budget release with as little bells and whistles as possible (and a terribly misleading tagline on the cover art) just to get it out of the way and move on. Granted, the film isn’t as “important” to the sci-fi genre as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was (a film that’s gotten a few major VHS and disc releases over the yers including some impressive collector’s editions). But it sure deserves a hell of a lot better preservation job than to be dumped into stores with zero fanfare and no other special features than a trailer and director’s commentary.

(Thanks, 0Lostboy0!)

Hell, I remember the film getting a pretty rousing reception when it was introduced at the comic book and sci-fi convention I went to here in NYC over 30 years ago…

At Creation Con (I think it was the 1981 show), I recall a panel about the film along with an exhibition area where some props, models and a few of John Mollo’s excellent costumes were displayed. There were some cool handouts given away as well, including a six-page press kit from the film and some Con-Am 27 security badges. I spent some time in the vaults here and actually dug up my last press kit from the show (left) and after leafing through it again after many years, I recalled that although it was pretty basic, that “futuristic” printing job was kind of cool back then.

The badges were simple stuff, but equally cool, featuring a small card inside a plastic sleeve with a pinback casing. The card had a black and white outline of the Con-Am 27 logo, a space for a picture with a peel-off label of the logo in the box (in green and white, I recall), a signature line and some important-looking text. At some point after the show, I actually painstakingly painted the logo on one card up to look more “official” and stuck a photo of myself to it. The final product was “official” looking enough that when wearing it a few years later at another convention for fun, I actually got waved into a secure area because someone thought I was relieving another guard who was going off duty. I thought I was being summoned over to get kicked out or something, only to almost end up working the show floor by mistake. It’s a good thing the guard leaving as his actual relief strolled up cleared up the confusion, or I’d be writing this from a different perspective, I suppose…

Anyway, the movie’s gritty mix of western and sci-fi elements may have even been what inspired comics legend Jim Steranko to come back to comics briefly, writing and drawing an adaptation of the film, which was published in chapters in the June to October 1981 issues of Heavy Metal magazine and even given the graphic novel trade paperback treatment. While I recall the adaptation getting beaten up a bit by the more elitist comics reviewers of the era for its excesses in style over storytelling, I rather liked the noir look to Steranko’s stylized artwork, as well as his sparse use of color throughout. If I’m not mistaken, I probably also bought the paperback book novelization if there was one, as that was something else I did whenever there was a film I liked dropping into theaters.

Back to the film, I remember reading up enough about the movie beforehand (as I did quite a lot about stuff I wanted to see) to know it was more or less an updated version of the Western genre classic, High Noon, a film I’d seen a few times when I was younger and liked more as I got older. This time, it was Sean Connery (playing the Gary Cooper role) as a justice-minded sheriff looking to bring order to a corrupt mining outpost on one of Jupiter’s moons after a synthetic drug used to make miners work harder leads to a rash of suicides. There’s a nasty cover-up after an affected miner almost kills a prostitute, but Connery’s Sheriff O’Neil and the mine’s cranky doctor (the great Frances Sternhagen, who should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, I say) work together to put things back to order. Or, as much order as can be restored to a broken system that’s far bigger than two people on a big ball of mineral profit, and part of many mines owned by a massive conglomerate only concerned with profit over the lives of its working class..

While the film has some questionable science going on (shotguns and smoking in a space station, the literally eye-popping demises of a few characters), it’s a solid, mature thriller with some fine acting, a great foot chase (Hyams LOVES complex, fast-paced chase scenes and this was one of his best) and even humor that fits in exactly where it’s required. In terms of the effects and costumes, Outland’s model work is impeccable pre-CG stuff with a shuttle that’s more function than form (it’s basically a box with retractable legs, a perfect ride for a no-frills mining colony) and Mollo’s functional space suits and miner wear. The film also pioneered a new visual technology called Introvision, which allowed characters to blend seamlessly into model shots using a special front-projection process. As for the infamous exploding heads, well, they’re not that bad in terms of today’s more gory effects (any Final Destination flick has this beat by miles), but the film definitely earned its R rating back then,

As Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking Alien rewrote the “used future” look Star Wars created into a more “realistic” working class blue-collar aesthetic, Production Designer Philip Harrison and Art Director Malcolm Middleton whipped up sets that showed Con-Am 27 to be a pretty mean place to make a living. The workers live in a series of cage-like quarters stacked atop each other like rows of low-rise chicken coops. Everything outside of the leisure area, mess hall and medical bay is cramped and uninviting, lending an air of tension to scenes. Even the gray prison area (with its single occupant zero-gravity rooms) is more inviting than the worker’s quarters.While most of the sets are dark, white space is used to nice effect in the handball court sequences as well as a nice contrasting color in the connecting hallways around the base.

O’Neil’s quarters, where he lives with his wife, Carol (an underused Kika Markham) and son are tightly designed to the point of claustrophobia, and despite an initially sunny disposition, his wife has had enough.  Mrs. O’Neil wants nothing more than to get back to Earth (born in pace, their son has never seen a real sky nor an actual blade of grass), but her do-gooder hubby and his crime-stopping ways have led to what’s more or less the family being exiled to the ass end of space as he works his way down the ladder. The scene where a weary sheriff returns to an empty apartment and a recorded message is nicely handled and interrupted before it gets too maudlin by a well-timed plot kicking device that gets the film moving before it gets too mushy.

O’Neil has promises to follow his family to Earth after he finishes this one last case, but Carol isn’t at all confident he’s not going to end up losing this battle and/or possibly dead if he sticks around. Meanwhile, the good Doctor Lazarus (Sternhagen), figures out what the drug is and what it does to a person, but not quite where it comes from, adding an interesting twist to the story when drug smuggling becomes another issue O’Neil needs to worry about. I won’t say much more other than as far as villains go, Peter Boyle’s mining camp boss, Sheppard, isn’t the scary yet smart and tough bad guy of a Bond film at all. He’s just another cog in a much bigger machine, a paunchy, bearded corrupt boss you’d most likely have a steak, a beer and a cigar with before playing a round of virtual golf where you let him win because you might get an extra day off and a few bucks for your time. What’s great about how Boyle plays this is he knows this and hopes O’Neil gets it as well, shuts up and maybe takes a bribe like some of the other space cops on the base.

But of course, Sheppard isn’t quite prepared for someone who’s not going to just clam up and lie down while men walk into airlocks, without pressure suits or go bat crap crazy and try to knife space hookers. So he deals with O’Neil the same way any man who wants to keep his cushy job and not get his hands dirty does – he gets other men to come after the sheriff. As in High Noon, a ticking clock plays a key as a plot mover, and when that time is up, it’s when the film turns into a more straightforward action flick as O’Neil needs to deal with assassins gunning for him and some right on time backstabbing from a deputy he trusted. You can guess everything that happens afterward, but Hyams’s sure direction, the snappy editing by Stuart Baird and Jerry Goldsmith’s absolutely outstanding score all help keep things rolling along to the conclusion.

Now, Outland isn’t without its flaws, none of which hurt the viewing experience. O’Neil’s wife an son are basically there to add emotional moments to the script, but you almost don’t care about them after they leave. As noted, the firearms and tobacco use are silly (but add excitement and a hazy atmosphere where required) and other than Sternhagen’s riot of a doctor, the few women in the film are portrayed as victimized (the prostitute), props (semi-nude dancers in the bar), whiners (Carol O’Neil), or slightly incompetent (a nurse Dr. Lazurus deals with in her great introduction scene). Finally, I’d have to say that the one unintentionally hilarious moment in the move comes when a space-suited bad guy falls to his death near the end of the film. Hyams chose to shoot the death scene from a top-down view, making that eventual splat at the bottom look like Wile E. Coyote getting his just desserts in a Road Runner cartoon. My friends and I cracked up when we saw this back in 1981 and I still laugh today when I see it.

Unlike High Noon however, Outland isn’t seen at all as a “classic” and certainly isn’t (and probably will never be) one of the many films chose for preservation by the Library of Congress. It also doesn’t get any cable love (I haven’t seen it in years, but I hope the Blu-Ray release changes this) and other than a pretty sweet Minecraft mod, a lot of sci-fi fans barely know of its existence as an important film in the days when sci-fi was evolving flick by flick into a genre that got the films it needed when it needed them. Granted, an old western story didn’t quite “wow” some critics and the low-tech approach, no aliens to blast or space battles (outside of the gunfights in the film) probably didn’t help matters much. That said, it’s still a nicely paced ride with fine work from all involved that’s worth a first look if you’ve never seen it or a new look if you haven’t seen it in a while. Just be prepared for a pretty no-frills viewing experience when you finally do track this one down.

Hyams, who had tackled the sci-fi/action genre “lightly” before in 1978’s Capricorn One (another great “chase” film with another stellar Jerry Goldsmith score) went on to write and direct 2010, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. While nowhere near the mind-boggling scope of 2001, the director managed to work up a reasonably tight film with a story that worked the US/USSR conflict at the time into its plot, putting both countries onto a war footing on Earth as its astronauts needed to work together in space in order to solve the mystery of what happened to the Discovery and her crew. Some early use of computer graphics and a more realistic sense of space travel made the film a solid effort, but it definitely felt less “special” than 2001 did when it was released.

Of course, I’ve run into people over the years who hated 2001 but liked 2010 because it “wasn’t as boring” and actually tied both films together in such a way that they didn’t need to sit through the first to enjoy the second. But that’s another trip into Random Filmland we’ll have to take some other time…

-GW

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