MOVIE REVIEW: “Outland” (1981)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Merry Christmas. I hope the three of you tuning in today are ready for an entirely-inappropriate film review. Are you sitting comfortably? Well then let's begin:

Once upon a time, there was the ramshackle world of Star Wars (1977), in which nothing was shiny and new, and in which high-tech stuff looked rather shopworn, and frequently pretty darn dingy. Star Wars then begat Alien (1979) in which Ridley Scott took the lived-in feel and kicked it up a notch. Alien begat Outland (1981) which is the sort of forgotten bastard child, and more famously it begat Blade Runner (1982) which did for urban decay what Alien did for industrial neglect. All in all pretty cool, and it’s hard for us today to remember that SF was ever entirely synonymous with antiseptic new tech straight out of the factory, and clean-cut college-educated young go-getters straight out of the space academy. Sure, you still get a lot of that kind of thing, but that used to be *all* you got.

Today I’m gonna’ talk about the forgotten chapter in that progression: Outland. Filmed in 1980, released in ’81, it was initially intended to be named “Io” after the Jovian moon. Alas, test audiences kept reading it as “10” or “Low,” so the name got changed to the memorable-but-somewhat-generic title we know it by today. I saw this movie with my dad in its initial release in ‘81, and loved it. I saw it with my friend Patrick Hughes on cable two or three years later, and wasn’t impressed. I hadn’t seen it again until this week, and once again I’m impressed, though perhaps somewhat less so than when I was 13.

PLAY BY PLAY

Jupiter’s moon Io (The opening titles inform us that it’s pronounced “Eye-Oh” presumably because of the problems with test audiences I noted above) is home to a titanium mining outpost called “ConAm 27.” It’s the only thing on the moon, it’s somewhat cut off, and a shuttle only comes in once a week.

There’s a new federal marshal in town, played by Sean Connery. That sounds like odd casting, but in fact it totally works, and he’s really good in this. Subdued, but in a good way, a Gary Cooper kind of way. Anywhoo, he’s on the moon two weeks when his wife leaves him and takes their son. She says they’ve been bounced around from outpost to outpost for years now, Sean always says it’ll get better, but in fact it always gets worse. Their kid has never even been to earth. She says she loves him, but she can’t take it anymore and she’ll call him in a few days from the Space Station.

At a welcome/staff meeting kind of thing, the General Manager of the mining outpost - Sheppard - basically says “Don’t make waves, and maybe you’ll make a little money.” Connery immediately knows something nefarious is afoot, so he starts looking. Meanwhile, we’ve seen several suicides on the moon. Connery confers with the generally nasty company doctor (Played brilliantly by Frances Sternhagen) who tells him to just get bent, but reluctantly does what he asks anyway. Turns out that in the last six months there have been 26 suicides, in the six months prior to that, there were 24, and in the six months prior to that there were only 2. Clearly something’s up, but there’s never been an autopsy done on any of the stiffs because they generally die by exposure to vacuum and explode, leaving little to poke around. Such remains as there are end up “Buried in space” by the next shuttle en-rout to the space station.

A freaked-out minor dies while roughing up a prostitute (A surprisingly naked Sharon Duce), and Connery is able to get a blood sample before they ditch the body. Turns out he’s hepped up on drugs, well duh. Connery realizes Sheppard is keeping his men on amphetamines so they’d produce more, which makes things better for him with the company. Connery says he’s going to take him down, but Sheppard assumes this is a play to get a bigger payoff.

Turns out it isn’t. Connery takes down two of Sheppards’ main men and destroys a shipment of several gallons of the drug. He confronts Sheppard, who tells him in no uncertain terms that the cop is a deadman. Connery ripostes that the drugs must have been pretty expensive, and whomever sent them isn’t going to be terribly happy with the general manager. Sheppard calls his mob connection on the Station, and asks him to send in his two best killers to take care of the Marshal. The mob boss informs him in no uncertain terms that if this doesn’t work, the next guys he sends in will be to kill Sheppard.

Connery’s wife calls, telling him she’s booked passage for three to earth, and begging him to come along, but he says he can’t go. He denies there’s a problem, of course. We get several tense scenes where Connery tries to get help from the locals, but no one will stick their neck out for him. We see him preparing for the killers, waiting anxiously for the train - excuse me, shuttle - to come to down.

When it arrives, we get an extended shootout/running chase sequence that goes on for quite a bit, but is pretty clever and works really well. I’ve never seen a sequence like this in an SF movie before or since, and I don’t know why as it makes so much darn sense. Well, check that: it makes sense from Connery’s point of view. The killers themselves don’t seem prepared for their surroundings, which itself doesn’t make much sense.

Connery wins, and heads home with his wife.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because all you have to do is throw in someone singing “Do not forsake me, oh my darling” and it’d be High Noon. In fact, one metal band wrote a song about the movie called “High Moon.”

I’m unsure how I feel about this. On the one hand, “The Magnificent Seven” is basically a remake of Korisawa’s “Seven Samurai,” and “Star Wars” is basically a remake of his “Hidden Fortress,” all four of which are pretty great films (Star Wars being the lowest card in the hand, but not bad by any stretch), so I’m cool with remaking a film in a different environment. That said: there’s a difference between knocking off a Japanese flick that no one except me has seen, and knocking off a western that *everyone* has seen (Except me. Never seen the whole thing, oddly.) It’s a pretty darn direct remake.

That said: High Noon is one of the best westerns ever (I’m told) and if you’re gonna’ rip something off, you may as well rip off something good. This is a genuinely good movie. Better, probably, if you don’t know what it’s taken from, but still pretty darn good. Updating the MacGuffin to be drugs works really, really well, and setting it in the hind end of nowhere is also a great way to get across exactly how alone the protagonist is, much the same way the original film did it by putting the town away out on the lone prarie.

What makes the film, though, is its unabashedly blue-collar perspective on life. Everyone, everyone, everyone is dingy as hell, even the company execs clothes are perpetually grease-stained. The workers are blue-collar and earthy, with no high-falutin’ United Federation of Planets Moralistic Absolutist Ideals. These are people working a terrible job to get money and go home and have a better life. They live in cramped quarters, just this side of oppressive. There’s no privacy, but there are plenty of company-licensed hookers. “Some of ’em are even pretty,” says Sheppard. It’s much like living on an Aircraft Carrier, or - the comparison is more intended here - an oil rig. There’s clearly no provision for kids, families, or what have you. This is not a colony, it’s an industrial outpost. On the one hand, they get Connery’s family offscreen way too early and way too easily, but on the other hand, it’s clearly not a place for a kid. Large sections of the sets look like something out of Alien, which is, of course, deliberate. There’s a shopworn quality and also a generic quality: A zillion people have lived in Connery’s quarters before him, a zillion people will live in it after him. It’s oppressive, but reasonable and kinda’ neat. Even the ’comfortable’ features, like the built-in couch in his apartment, have a kind of stern, industrial sense to ’em.

Connery is great here, in one of his last pre-comeback roles. He plays a middle-aged man with no super-power or special mental abilities. He’s just a guy. We find out that he’s been bounced from job to job mainly because he’s a loudmouth, but he apparently doesn’t have a reputation as being a crusader. He loves his family, but he really doesn’t know what to do with them, so there’s an awkwardness there. My favorite two scenes are when he tells his wife ’you smell nice,’ out of nowhere, as though he doesn’t know what else to say. The other one is when he’s on the phone to her, and keeps giving one-word answers. The missus says “I know you. When you start speaking in sentences of less than two words, something is wrong.” He gives a slightly awkward pause in which he’s clearly thinking of what to say next, and then carefully says “There is nothing wrong,” which might as well be monosyllabic.

The scene where he tells Dr. Sternhagen why he’s doing this - because it’s a crappy life inside a crappy machine, and he doesn’t want to do his crappy part anymore, but more than that, he needs to find out if the machine is right, or if he is - is very well delivered. It’s introspection from a man who isn’t by nature introspective. It’s delivered like it’s something the character has suspected, but hasn’t really articulated until then. He says it like he’s sorting it out for himself. He repeats himself slightly while saying it, which is a nice touch, as though he doesn’t quite know how to say it, or where to stop the story.

I read this as meaning that Connery knows he can’t live this life anymore, but he feels as if he’s wasted his life doing it. It’s not so much that he isn’t going to go with his wife, it’s more that he can’t *let* himself go until he actually proves to himself that he’s worthy of a life independent of all this crap. If the company’s wrong, I can go be a normal person. If the company’s right, I don’t want to live anymore. It’s his last chance to prove that he’s a man, and that being a man has some relevance inside their huge solar system-spanning civilization. The whole movie is a visual metaphor for the machine: they live in a giant machine, which is, itself, one cog in a huge company, which is itself a cog in the economy, which is, itself, a cog in a vast, unfathomable civilization. And it’s all corrupt. And there’s Connery as Yertle the Turtle, simply refusing to go along with it anymore. This is an element original to Outland, it’s not in High Noon at all.

This can be taken as anti-capitalist, and probably it was meant that way, but it can also be taken as the triumph of a decent man over an indecent situation. Connery is, at the end of the day, the only man willing to stand up for people who frankly don’t deserve it. Can a man be a man inside a machine, or will he simply be crushed by the gears? Well, evidently he can, but it takes a lot of work.

Frances Sternhagen is really great as Dr. Lazarus, though her name gives a little Dickensian clue as to how she’ll affect the story in the end. She’s so completely unlikeable, and so unrepentant about it (“I’m unpleasant, I’m not stupid”) that it’s impossible not to like her. I particularly like that while she and Connery obviously bond, obviously become kin of the same affliction, they’re not best friends. They owe each other a debt they can’t repay, and they’re not going to try. They just go their separate ways, pretty obviously they’ll never see, nor talk to each other again. The forced way in which Connery says “You were a good friend” says legions about both of them: He hasn’t had many friends, and he doesn’t wear his feelings on his sleeve. Likewise, her realization that she did good genuinely surprises her. Lazarus indeed. For both of them, really.

There’s some fairly nasty stuff in the film, of course. Lots of casual nudity in the locker rooms and stuff, and also some full-time sex dancers in the saloon. I don’t mean strippers, I mean guys and girls actively having sex on stage. When I first saw this movie, there was some debate amongst my friends as to whether these were real people, or if they were intended to be holograms. The way their shot could go either way, and while I now think they were supposed to be real (No shortage of sex workers on Io), I think it was deliberately shot nebulously so as to get around a much harder rating. I also suspect those scenes were massively trimmed down for the same reason.

Curiously none of the…uhm…copulators ever went on to do anything else. I assumed they probably had porn careers before or after, but, nope. Just one screen credit for any of ‘em. That’ll be a tough one to explain to the kids, “Tell us about your acting career, daddy!”

Curiously they make a point of showing a wedding ring on the right hand of the roughed-up prostitute. She’s a widow. Nice ellipsis. She was a victim always, but thanks to that one piece of jewelry, we know she’s more of a victim, more of a person, clearly someone who suffered a loss and turned to turning tricks to survive, and now look what’s happened to her. I should mention that the actor playing the tripped-out attacker in those scenes is great! He really honestly seems like he’s stoned out of his mind, in a very threatening way.

I love that Connery is basically unarmed through the entire final sequence. He’s an animal, and the hit men are the hunters, but, of course, cornered animals are still formidable, especially when they’ve got young to protect. That’s a curious thing, by the way: they never make a big deal about the fact that Connery’s wife and kid are on the very same space station the killers are coming from, and the mob boss is on. Are they in danger?

I always get a kick out of it when Connery curses. Sure, we hear him say ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ a lot over the course of his career, but you don’t generally hear him call someone “Asshole” or drop the F-bomb. I just find that funny, there’s something so out of place about it.

The big twist ending about the inside man really doesn’t add much. Conversely, he scenes between Connery and his Sergeant in the first half of the film are nice. The Sergeant is on the take, and Connery knows it. He’s ashamed, but there’s no real talk of repentance. He has thought about it, though, but just enough to make him uncomfortable. The scene where he attempts to talk Connery through his depression when his wife leaves is genuinely touching. You wouldn’t think a man could deliver a line like “You know some of the hookers here are nice. Sometimes they can really help you,” with genuine heartfelt concern and pathos, but he pulls it off. James Sikking is fantastic in the part, but alas he’s in all too little of the movie. (Were it me, I’d re-write the film to conflate his character with the other Sergeant later in the film, tightening it up and giving it a bit more emotional resonance. I think they miss a major beat there. I won‘t spoil it here, though.)

And that’s basically that: A pleasant surprise from a forgotten film.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Yeah, I think so. It’s High Noon, after all.

Tags: