Friday, February 12, 2016

Outland


My buddy over at Movie Curiosities and I decided to dig into Outland and crank out a tag team review! Check out his blog for more excellent reviews!

   This 1981 sci-fi thriller, Outland, is quite the overlooked gem. I say overlooked instead of underrated because the people who have seen it, seem to be very fond of it. It's a moody and atmospheric little mystery-thriller with a lived-in sci-fi aesthetic, but the structure of a tried-and-true western. The components of the movie will seem familiar to anyone who's seen a western or two. A new sheriff rolls into town, isn't quick to just look the other way when bad stuff goes down, and before long he finds himself making enemies left and right. I could go into greater detail and make lengthy comparisons, but it's more fun if you found out for yourself.

   I’d wager that at least part of the problem is that it came out in 1981. Remember, this was the year that gave us Superman II, Time Bandits, An American Werewolf in London, The Great Muppet Caper, and Clash of the Titans, not to mention a little movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark. That last one alone would be enough to overshadow just about any movie. (Indeed, though Outland got an Oscar nomination for Best Sound, it was beaten out by Raiders.) Then again, the movie was released on May 22nd, when there wasn’t a whole lot of competition (The Legend of the Lone Ranger, anyone?).


   Another possible factor is that the film so clearly owes so much to Alien. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, of course – Alien was a hugely influential movie that’s impacted untold hundreds of films over the years. Even so, given that Alien had only come out two years prior and the two films look so much alike, audiences of 1981 could be forgiven for writing off Outland as an unnecessary cash grab. Especially since – judging from the trailer – the film was marketed in such a way as to invite the comparison.

   It really does looks like it takes place in the same on-screen universe as Alien. For the first act of the movie, it's easy to expect a creature to pop up and start devouring people or dragging them into steam vents. I personally found that really fun about Outland- how this setting could've easily been the setting for a sci-fi/horror movie instead. Yet, once the story starts to take shape, you realize that's not it at all. This is a cop thriller, "in space". I like the idea that this kind of setting can house different (sub)genres- as if this specific grimy and lived-in aesthetic can only be used for sci-fi horror. Ridiculous. Why not a sci-fi drama? I'll grant you that the necessary settings for the aesthetic to function impose certain limitations, but not by much. Outland pulled off a freakin' western. Beat that.

   I also appreciate how the filmmakers kept the story streamlined and didn’t try to force anything in. There are no aliens or cosmic forces or strange McGuffins. There’s no attempt at a contrived romance subplot – indeed, the main character’s wife (played by Kika Markham) is very quickly pushed out of the way, so that she can affect our hero as an offscreen presence without working as a distraction or a damsel in distress. That said, the filmmakers aren’t above throwing out the occasional red herring: I could’ve sworn I heard some throwaway line about nuclear explosives. You don’t just throw something like that out there and not use it.

   Huh. I don't recall, but I could very well have missed it myself. Anyhow, Sean Connery plays Marshall William T. O'Niel, the latest lawman stationed at a mining colony on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. It's not an incredibly dynamic or demanding role, but Connery brings his A game nonetheless. There's at least a handful of scenes that he really breathed life into that would've fallen by the wayside with a lesser actor in the part. Whatever emotional heft the movie has, Connery carries by himself. As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, it's nice to see some familiar faces like Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver) and Steven Berkoff (Rambo: First Blood Pt.II), but it's Frances Sternhagen as Dr.Lazarus that steals the show whenever possible. Her brand of dry and brash humor is fun, and her dynamic with Connery's character is fantastic.

   Even thirty years later, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see a female lead work with the male lead in a mutually respectful partnership void of any sexual tension. Though I absolutely hate the character’s name (“Dr. Lazarus”? Seriously?!), she’s a strong and competent character who can match Connery pound for pound.

   Absolutely! Their dynamic actually brings to mind modern movies like Dredd and Mad Max: Fury Road. Comparisons like that are high praise. I see a lot of people saying that Outland was wasted potential, but I think they're wrong. I think the movie is incredibly well crafted entertainment that hits all the marks it sets out to. Not every sci-fi movie has to be a mind blowing, intellectual, tour de force, sometimes a low key mystery/thriller is just what the doctor ordered. I've no serious complaints about the movie offhand. I feel like the pacing is on point and the story is engaging throughout. The plot about a fatally dangerous drug being sold to workers on the station is tight as a drum and offers up some wonderfully lurid scenes. The story builds to a completely serviceable climax with the requisite amount of running, shooting, and hiding. Of course, no opportunities are wasted to exploit the setting of the movie either.

   The mystery is very beautifully paced, and when you stop to remember that space really is the final frontier, the notion of a space western makes all kinds of sense. Unfortunately, I personally thought that the action was uneven. The unusual suicides are wonderfully presented, and the climax offers up a few solid match-ups, but then we watch as the filmmakers visibly struggle to film two people fighting each other to the death in bulky space suits and make it exciting to watch.

Even so, where this film truly excels is in fleshing out its setting. The filmmakers find all sorts of unobtrusive ways to show us how everyone sleeps, how they work, how they enjoy themselves, and so many other little minutiae about this world and all the people in it. Hell, we can see that the miners are able to treat themselves to hookers and a saloon, both of which fit the “western in space” concept like a glove. Even if the “future” tech looks laughably dated by modern standards (a common problem in sci-fi media, to be fair), it’s so easy to believe that this is an actual functional mining operation.

   I must admit that I'm a sucker for the dated look of things here. It's a very specific aesthetic that I personally find rather unique. It could be it's own 'thing' if someone coined a name for it. Steampunk and Cyberpunk are both genres that embrace a very specific look and brand of technology, why not this?

   Nevertheless the movie is not without flaw. Unfortunately, minor logic gaps tend to pop up here and there. Like, how does a single shotgun blast fracture any of the outer glass/windows on this station? Shouldn't it be reinforced? This is a mining colony, which has lots of dangerous equipment on it. My point being is, this glass should be a lot harder to break. It's literally all that's between people in some sections and the endless void outside. Not a very safe work environment. Also, some of the science in the movie is terribly inaccurate, but unless you're someone who's actually researched the real effects on the vacuum of space on a human body, you'll probably not care or not notice. These are minor and easily forgivable nitpicks in the grand scheme of things. They don't hinder the story or create plot holes in any significant way.

   I beg to differ on that last point. The very moment someone brings a shotgun out into space and fires it, that completely brought me out of the movie. Bullets need explosions, explosions need fire, and fire needs oxygen. Bringing conventional firearms out into a zero-oxygen environment was a colossally stupid choice.  And let’s not forget the treatment of gravity. We’re very explicitly told that the gravity on Io is 1/6th that of Earth. I can overlook that for the indoor scenes because maybe they have artificial gravity in there or whatever. But in the outdoor scenes, the treatment of gravity is wildly inconsistent.

  All fair points. Yet, when all is said and done, Outland is a completely serviceable piece of science fiction entertainment. It relies more on familiar concepts and a grounded plot instead of elaborate and over-the-top sci-fi. It's basically just a western, with a handful of exciting and suspenseful scenes, in a sci-fi setting. That sounds appealing enough to me. This is the second time I've seen it, and both times I've had a lot of fun with it.  It's easy to watch, and easy to recommend.

   The film is hardly perfect, but it definitely qualifies as an overlooked gem. Even after “Firefly”, the concept of a sci-fi western is still terribly underutilized, and this movie is proof of how much potential remains untapped in the genre mashup. I’d absolutely recommend any hardcore sci-fi fans out there to give it a try.

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