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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Outland

Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle
Director: Peter Hyams
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: January 1981
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking, Kika Markham, Steven Berkoff, Clarke Peters, John Ratzenberger

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Seemingly harmless words can often have great consequences. Something like that probably happened in early 1980s when at least one of the critics watched OUTLAND, science fiction thriller directed by Peter Hyams and used the phrase "HIGH NOON in space" in its review. From that point onward, Peter Hyams lost any hope of having his movie judged by its own merit. Unavoidable comparison between this 1980s SF-thriller and 1950s cult western were usually in favour of the latter, and more snobbish of the critics saw OUTLAND as the hack job - lame attempt to cash on late 1970s science fiction craze by scavenging American movie heritage. Because of this, reputation of the film suffered and two decades later OUTLAND is one of the most tragically underrated films of all time.

Plot of the movie is set in relatively near future and it takes place on Io, Jupiter's moon which became site of profitable mining operation. Mining rig Con-Am 27 is manned by around 2000 people - miners, maintenance workers, administration and similar kind of personal. Demanding job, claustrophobic condition and insulation from the rest of humanity take a heavy toll on people's psychological health and it isn't unusual for them to commit suicide or go on seemingly unprovoked killing rampage. However, for William T. O'Neil (played by Sean Connery), head of mining colony's small police force, bizarre form and increasingly high number of such incidents are the reason enough to start the investigation. With the reluctant help of colony's world-weary physician Dr. Lazarus (played by Frances Sternhagen) he discovers that the victims had been addicted to powerful amphetamine. Since mining company's executive Sheppard (played by Peter Boyle) brags about his workers being more productive than usual, O'Neil soon quickly adds two and two and uncovers widespread drug-dealing business. But his attempt to bring Sheppard to justice is going to put his life in danger; by uncovering the scheme O'Neil had stepped on too many powerful toes and a team of professional assassins is sent to mining colony in order to take care of him. While the shuttle with assassins slowly arrives, O'Neil desperately wants to find help, but everyone, even his subordinates, finds good excuses for not being around the lone lawman when the inevitable showdown happens.

Peter Hyams in his script for OUTLAND indeed borrows some elements from HIGH NOON - lone hero facing impeding showdown with villains in order to rescue community apathetic towards his cause - but those elements are visible only in the last segment of the film, in the scenes immediately before the showdown. More explicit source of inspiration for OUTLAND could be found in Ridley Scott's ALIEN, which was made only two years before. Similarities between two films go way beyond musical soundtracks (both written by Jerry Goldsmith) or opening titles; the plot setting and the atmosphere in the film is almost identical and good case can be made about OUTLAND and ALIEN sharing the same universe. OUTLAND, same as many great science fiction films of late 1970s and early 1980s, takes rather dystopian view of mankind's future. If mankind's future lies in conquest of space, such endeavour is going to be motivated by simple greed more than any noble idea. And such endeavour is going to depend on blue collar workers more prone to succumb to human weaknesses - both physical and psychological - than their present- day counterparts. And even the establishment, symbolised in invisible but all-powerful entities of multinational corporations, is going to go "native" in such harsh, unforgiving environment and turn human life into expendable commodity. Future depicted in OUTLAND is dark, depressive and even the standard happy ending is not going to compromise such powerful vision.

For some science fiction purists, OUTLAND lacks genre credentials due to some scientific inaccuracies - most notable being the depiction of instant decompression to human body, used in the most memorable (and bloodiest) scenes of the film. Those flaws are, however, too few to bother anyone except the most ardent nit-pickers. Without them, OUTLAND is film that built a very well-rounded world of its own. The production design is very convincing, same as the technology (law enforcement of the near future is more likely to use pump-action shotguns than some cool but too destructive laser guns), and special effects are also very good and still look convincing after almost two decades. Ironically, the only exception might be found in the scenes that future hopelessly outdated 1980s computer graphic on video screens. But the general impression is more than favourable and OUTLAND is as exciting science fiction in 2002 as it was in 1981.

The acting is somewhat disappointing. Sean Connery is quite capable in rather one- dimensional role of lone hero, while Peter Boyle comfortably sleepwalks through the standard role of corporate villain. Kika Markham is, on the other hand, terrible in the role of O'Neil's wife, completely unnecessary character in completely unnecessary subplot dealing with hero's family. However, OUTLAND still has one more than good acting performance thanks to Frances Sternhagen and her wonderful portrayal of cynical doctor. Character actor James B. Sikking is also quite effective in a small role of O'Neil's morally ambiguous partner. The characters in this film are, however, subordinated to action and Hyams more than delivers in that department. Action scenes are well-placed within the film and the final showdown, involving one of the first outer space brawls in motion picture history, is still impressive after all this time.

As a result, OUTLAND is a remarkable example of its genre, both disturbing yet entertaining film and one of many hidden gems from the era when the future looked bleak.

Copyright 2002 Dragan Antulov

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