Disappointed in “Cowboys and Aliens” and looking for a film that does a better job of blending the Western and Sci-Fi genres? Look no further than the gritty and exciting Peter Hyams film “Outland“. The plot of one decent man fighting a corrupt system while trying to redeem himself at the same time is familiar, but it works very well here due to eye-popping special effects, strong performances, and well-staged action scenes.
I like Sean Connery in the Bond films, but his acting talents are put to far better use in those movies where he has more human imperfections and vulnerabilities (e.g., The Offence, The Hill, Russia House). As a paunchy, middle-aged marshal named W.T. O’Niel, Connery gives us a man battered by family and career disappointments. He is working in a near-lawless, awful mining colony on a remote moon because that’s where someone with his mediocre reputation belongs. In every scene, you can see the weight on his shoulders that comes from lack of self-respect and complete disillusionment with the world.
Frances Sternhagen gives a multi-layered performance as the second-rate doctor who helps the new marshal figure out why a number of miners have been committing horribly violent acts against themselves and their fellow colonists. She perfectly conveys a romantic interest in Connery that is covered over with self-protective wisecracks. She knows he is committed to saving his failing marriage but can’t help wishing otherwise. The third primary player in the drama is a memorably sleazy and smug Peter Boyle, as the corporate scumbag who runs the colony. He radiates contempt for Connery in every scene as he uses lacerating words, bribe offers and, eventually, deadly threats to stop the investigation of the strange epidemic of violence among the miners. James B. Sikking is also good in a supporting role as another unhappy, self-hating marshal who befriends Connery.
The space scenes are extremely well done, with the special effects enhancing rather than distracting from the storytelling. Meanwhile, inside the colony there are saloon style swinging doors, people carrying shotguns, scared locals and a Western feel, as a High Noon style digital clock ticks down to the moment when the next shuttle will arrive, bringing Boyle’s goons to take care of the nosy marshal.
The middle of the movie contains a long, superbly choreographed chase and fight scene that must have been an absolute bear to film. This could have made the final confrontation of the movie a letdown, but the climactic scenes — some of them set in outer space rather than inside the colony — have a distinctive, thrilling feel and style.
Outland was only a modest money maker when it was released in 1981, perhaps because people were expecting another Star Wars. It’s not that and it doesn’t need to be. It stands up very well as a highly successful blend of two beloved film genres, as well as a showcase for the acting and still-formidable action chops of the eminently watchable Sir Sean.