Outland is a western in space that surprises and entertains

One of the things I dislike about recent movies has been the rise of the “High
Concept” film, movies that with a simple one-sentence premise that appeal to the lowest common denominator. You get generic movies that doesn’t surprise or engage smart audiences. If you made a movie that was, basically, “High Noon in space” today, I’d probably dismiss it out of hand in the same way I dismissed “Cowboys and Aliens.”

And yet… “High Noon in space” is exactly what the 1981 film Outland is, and it’s fantastic.

Set on the Saturn moon of Io, the movie follows the story of Marshall William O’Niel (Sean Connery) as he investigates the mysterious deaths of two miners. The more he comes to uncovering the truth, the more the manager of the colony (played wonderfully by Peter Boyle) decides he needs to remove him… permanently.

With Sean Connery as the lead, director Peter Hyams could have easily made the film “James Bond… in SPACE!” but, thankfully, he grounds the film in a gritty reality that makes the material more authentic and engaging. Connery is as charismatic as always, but he plays the part in a low-key way that works perfectly for the material. And when it comes to the material, at no point does Hyams play the film as anything other than a “day at the office” for all concerned… and it’s that verisimilitude that takes the movie to the next level.

The rest of the cast is terrific. Frances Sternhagen and James B Sikking do great work (and look for John Ratzenberger in a small role). Hyams cast nondescript actors to play most of the other supporting parts, and these “generic” actors allows you to not go “Hey, it’s that guy!” every time a new character is introduced.

When I first saw Outland, I was impressed. Revisiting it many years later I’m gobsmacked… how did this movie not become a classic and a huge box office hit? I think that the grittiness turned off many casual filmgoers, and maybe SF fans were unaccustomed to a character study that didn’t feature lasers and spaceships.

Watching Outland, you can see a huge influence from the earlier film ALIEN… a movie that took the “day in the life” concept we see in Outland to a frightening extreme. You can easily imagine that the film is set in the same universe in Outland… even the sets look similar, and Jerry Goldsmith’s great score echoes the same notes he used for ALIEN.

The reason why Outland works beyond it’s “High Concept” premise is simple… it is incredibly well produced, written and directed. Unlike the big-budget films of the 21st century, Outland is a picture of a world that may never exist, but one that feels absolutely TRUE as you watch it. It, like Hyams’ other underrated film 2010 (which will be covered in a future column) is an incredibly rewarding film that should have a lot more “eyeballs” than it does.

Check it out when you can – it’s one of the best SF films you’ve never seen.