Weekend Film Recommendation: Outland

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

12 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Outland”

  1. Outland has been one of my and my wife’s favorite movies since it came out. However, there is one problem with it that I (fortunately) am able to mostly ignore:

    Who in their right mind would carry around a shotgun–and think of firing it–in an environment that requires donning an atmosphere suit if you need to go outside the mining station and its tubular walkways? And all the walkways are covered with windows (not bulletproof, either)!

    A gunfight in this setting is just suicidal.

    However, director Peter Hyams and his cast make it work.

    [NOTE: Do not confuse Outland with the more recent Outlander, which is a decent science-fictional retelling of Beowulf.

  2. “The space scenes are extremely well done, with the special effects enhancing rather than distracting from the storytelling.”

    What, you mean aside from the imbecility of helmets with lights pointed at the wearer’s face, nicely lighting it up for the cameras, but assuring that in real life the person wouldn’t see anything beyond their reflection on the inside of the helmet?

    1. I never thought of that! I’m still waiting for a car to come out with *sub*dashboard lighting.

    2. That can be chaulked up to artistic license. It works to make the story move. In theatre the audience owes the artists suspension of disbelief.
      I always thought the effect of the head inflating like a baloon before exploding inside the helment was unbelievable but it got the idea across.

      1. That effect pretty much ruined the rest for me. The whole thing was pretty much a spaghetti western with spacesuits. (At the time I would have said that the corporate types were unrealistically evil cartoons who would never be so self-destructively shortsighted in real life, but then the past 30 years happened.)

        Compare, say, to Moon.

  3. Thanks for reminding me of how much I enjoyed this one when it came out. O’Niel, as played by Connery, is a worthy cousin to Sam Vimes. AS for those silly helmet lights, Brett, you’re right, but you can’t win ’em all. Unlike the current primary mess, It’s. Just. A. Movie–and a much better one than it needed to be.

  4. Thanks, Keith, for the review of Outland; yes, it may be “just a Space Western”, (and was immediately recognizable as such – to me, anyway – on first viewing, which I’ve always thought was one of its virtues): but it handles its material a lot better than most of the genre (Firefly comes to mind; sorry, Joss).

    Oh, and Brett: you’re quite right about those helmet lights (a standard piece of equipment in many a sci-fi flick): one supposes, though, that a technology capable of colonizing distant planets in space might also be competent enough to devise some sort of anti-reflective coating for their helmet visor. One would think….

  5. Among the film’s problems is that O’Niel’s name is spelled three different ways over the course of the film.

  6. On the trailer, did anyone clock who does the voiceover?

    Sounds like the voice of a famous actor, but cannot place it

Comments are closed.