Retro fix–Outland, Sean Connery’s stint as a cop in a space Western

Review by C.J. Bunce

For every new movie you watch, you need to go back and see a classic, right?  If The Hunt for Red October is Star Trek in the ocean, then Outland is The Sand Pebbles in outer space.  A predecessor to science fiction staples like Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Firefly, Outland is still one of the best depictions of what life actually may be like working aboard a space vessel, once modern technology figures out how to get past that zero gravity issue.  Isolation rarely has been portrayed as believably as directed here by Peter Hyams (Timecop, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, The Star Chamber, Amazing Stories).  The 1981 Academy Award-nominated classic, Outland is now streaming on Starz, Hulu, Amazon, and Vudu.

Audiences never saw Sean Connery so average as he was playing Marshal William T. O’Niel.  In a very low-key role more frequently seen played by someone like Steve McQueen, Connery is a federal cop in space, assigned to the titanium ore mining outpost Con-Am 27.  He was selected because he was likely to phone in his job, and not ruffle feathers.  But he finds himself when he learns the outpost is a haven for drug smuggling and worse, using drugs to work crews to their deaths, all part of a cover-up.  The film’s own predecessors were any number of cop shows, and it has themes from Westerns, too, especially High Noon, another lone lawman trying to take out a local band of ruffians–and another man with marital problems.  Critics accused the film of being thin, but it’s exactly why the film works so well and holds up well still today.  In many ways the film is better, and even scarier, than Alien and Total Recall, proving you don’t need monsters to be truly alone and unprotected from life-threatening elements in space.

O’Niel’s only help is from Frances Sternhagen (Doc Hollywood, Cheers, The Closer) as Dr. Marian Lazarus, a no-nonsense crewman who is sympathetic to O’Niel as the newbie having to dodge the unfamiliar “way things are done.”  Dr. Lazarus is one of sci-fi’s least known but toughest sci-fi heroines, and her chemistry with Connery as comrade-at-arms is superb.  Another crew member is played by sci-fi and Western veteran James Sikking (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, MD), who would continue for decades to play similar roles.  And the baddie of the bunch is played by your favorite film Frankenstein, Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein, Johnny Dangerously, The X-Files, Everybody Loves Raymond).

The film foresees a Nintendo-style golf video game used by Boyle aboard ship to stay occupied from the ever-looming boredom.  The computer monitors and wall graphics are similar to other film uses of the day that predicted the future, like Alien and Tron.  Along with interesting spacesuits, the blue uniform Connery wears, complete with sheriff badge, looks like many police department uniforms then and now, which seems more likely to be used as a step after the jumpsuits so often seen in science fiction TV shows and films today.  That’s thanks to costume designer John Mollo, who had won an Oscar for his costumes in Star Wars in 1977, and who would go farther back in time for his fantastic military uniforms in the A&E Horatio Hornblower TV series.  Speaking of Star Wars, watch closely and you’ll see the bar on the outpost echoes the filming of the cantina in Star Wars, its own hive of scum and villainy, with humans swapped for aliens.  The ballcaps also look similar to those in The Last Starfighter.

The film makes ample use of the futuristic corridor, and the models and environments belong in the annals of visual effects progress well beyond Logan’s Run, and even better than some of the effects in the following year’s Blade Runner, although Blade Runner surpassed the technology of the film for the era for the most part.  The med facility, as well as several other set pieces, look to be direct artistic influences on the crew facilities in the Battlestar Galactica reboot and Star Trek Enterprise.  

Close your eyes and listen to Outland and you’ll quickly understand why the film was nominated for the Best Sound Oscar.  It has a great Jerry Goldsmith score, right after the composer worked on the score for Alien.  The effects were ahead of their time, including an in-camera innovation allowing people to walk among sets made from model miniatures.

Watch for an early appearance by later The Empire Strikes Back and Cheers veteran, John Ratzenberger.

Look for the 1981 sci-fi classic Outland, now streaming on several platforms, including Starz, Vudu, Amazon, and Hulu, as well as Blu-ray.

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