Wanting to make a western at a time when the genre was considered utterly passé by Hollywood, writer / director Peter Hyams crafted a clever riff on High Noon (1952), reworking a small desert town with a lack of law abiding citizens into a corrupt mining operation on Jupiter’s moon Io, where the local sheriff stands alone against a corporate manager and a pair of hit men on an incoming shuttle.
Hyams got extremely lucky when Sean Connery was cast, because the actor gives total credence to the stalwart hero who’s surrounded by morally lax colleagues, and workers jacked up on a drug that offers high productivity for its users in exchange for a psychotic break 12 months later. Sheriff O’Niel isn’t a coward, but he’s professionally lost, picking up shitty space mining assignments that have taxed his marriage and thus far prevented his son from growing up on Earth like his parents.
O’Niel’s put in a bind when he has to choose between a job he hates, taking down a corrupt system, and returning to Earth with his family, and Hyams adds a low-level potential romance with sharp-witted Dr. Lazarus (scene-stealer Frances Sternhagen) who’s pivotal in keeping him safe when the goon squad arrives on an early shuttle.
As a sci-fi thriller, Outland’s aged extremely well because of the fine casting (Peter Boyle is particularly menacing as the corrupt operations manage) and a tightly designed environment where too many desperate & bored people are stuck in a human sardine can until the end of their contracts. It’s also a generic mining town that’s separated several families, which makes the environment easily identifiable to current audiences.
In addition to the cast, Hyams had an excellent production designer, editor Stuart Baird (Die Hard), and composer Jerry Goldmsith, who composed a robust score using a full-sounding orchestra and slight electronic elements. Hyams had worked with Goldsmith before (Capricorn One), and the director wanted to capture the ambiance established at the beginning of Alien (1979) by using both that film’s composer, and designing a title sequence with a similar use of sparse music and graphic title design.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray sports a nice transfer of the film, and although it was released in 70mm for the benefit of big screen multitrack sound, the BR’s sound mix is rather humble; it’s still a good sound mix, but there’s a lack of oomph, and Goldsmith’s score isn’t as punchy as the soundtrack album.
A nice bonus is a director’s commentary track (not present on the original DVD), with Hyams generally maintaining straight talk to the end, discussing the film’s entire production and release history. There’s also a nice nod to the long-dead Ladd Company which, in his eyes, was respected by filmmakers because company head Alan Ladd Jr. gave directors more creative freedom.
The included trailer typically blows all the action highlights (and an important revelation), and it’s also a bit amusing for the hasty obfuscation of nudity present in a MRI examination sequence.
Only qualm: Why would the local law be outfitted with guns that would destroy the fragile environment with one salvo, as evidenced in the space walk chase? If you can accept Hyams’ ridiculous conceit of guns in space, Outland’s grand sci-fi that works best when splashed on a big screen, maximizing its visual scope and editorial kinetics.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan