Tuesday, December 09, 2014

From the Archive: Outland (1981)

One of the best and perhaps most unsung science fiction films of the early 1980s is Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981), a movie which boasts the unforgettable tag-line: “Even in space, the ultimate enemy is man.” 

A 1980s re-imagination of High Noon (1952), Outland -- much like its Fred Zinneman directed predecessor -- thrives as both an action film and as a social critique of a particular span of the Cold War Era.

While High Noon allegorically concerned the McCarthy Hearings and Hollywood Blacklist, Outland concerns itself with out-of-control, unregulated business interests, and their deleterious impact on the average joe: the worker.  In both cases, a man alone faces a dangerous, corrupt establishment, and even though his cause is just, can't get his fellow-man to join him in the fight.

In terms of visualizations, Outland’s production design and special effects make the drama’s central location -- a mining town on Jupiter’s moon, Io -- feel abundantly like a real place.  The industrial, cramped, tactile sets generate a sense not only of verisimilitude, but of rampant claustrophobia.  One stunning, sprawling chase sequence in the film's second act makes outstanding use of the de-humanizing sets and the feelings they generate.  In some sense, the movie also plays like the space age equivalent of the gritty The French Connection (1971).

Finally, Sean Connery delivers an appealing lead performance as Marshal O’Niel in Outland, playing an older law enforcement official who realizes that he is part of a system that he despises, and attempts to change that fact.

“There's a whole machine that works because everybody does what they are supposed to. And I found out... I was supposed to be something I didn't like.”

Marshal O'Niel (Connery) has just been assigned to the Con-Am 27 installation on Io, the third moon of Jupiter. Seventy hours from the nearest space station, this mine boasts a population of 2,144 workers, and a supply shuttle visits once a week.

While O'Niel deals with his wife's (Kika Markham's) decision to take their son and leave the grim installation, there's also a rash of worker suicides to contend with. One miner rips open his atmosphere suit while on the surface, convinced that he is being attacked by spiders. Another worker walks into the airlock and mining elevator with no suit whatsoever...and leaves behind a boiling, bloody mess.

O'Niel is suspicious about these deaths, and learns from the post's dissolute doctor, named Lazarus (an outstanding Frances Sternhagen...) that there have been twenty-four such "suicides" in the past six months. O'Niel doesn't buy that explanation and learns that the station's administrator, Sheppard (Peter Boyle) is running an illegal drug operation.

Sheppard is using two workers -- Spota and Yario -- to pass the drugs to the population. The synthetic narcotic, an amphetamine, makes workers do their jobs much more quickly: 14 hours of work in 6 hours. Of course, this means a higher quota; which means the business is more profitable for Sheppard and his bosses.

But there's a down side, the drug also "fries the brain" and turns normal men psychotic.

O'Niel interferes with the drug-running operation, but learns he was given the assignment as Federal District Marshal on Io because it was expected he wouldn't rock the boat. He doesn't like that arrangement, and so confronts Sheppard. Sheppard responds by sending professional assassins to kill the meddling O'Niel.

Unfortunately, this frontier world is a place where nobody wants to stick their neck out, and O'Niel must face the killers alone...and the next shuttle is arriving soon.

I run a franchise. The company hired me to dig as much ore out of this hellhole as possible…The workers are happy. When the workers are happy, they dig more ore. They get paid more bonus money. When they dig more ore, the company's happy. When the company's happy, I'm happy.”

In High Noon, a retired law-man, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), learns that a train carrying a criminal he once put away, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is coming to town.  Miller seeks vengeance, and has three gang-members to help him achieve that goal.  Realizing he can’t succeed alone, Kane asks for help from the local towns-people in Hadleyville, but they rebuff his entreaties for help. 

High Noon thus views civilization as oppressive and corrupt, and critic Pauline Kael famously termed the movie “a microcosm of the evils of capitalist society.” (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Bantam Books, 1969, page 345.) 

High Noon's mythic, archetypal approach to storytelling -- which pits one man against a corrupt system -- likely explains why the western is widely beloved by people on all sides of the political spectrum, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It is a film about individual morality, and that morality balanced against the presiding morality of a society at large.

Specifically, the townspeople's refusal to assist a good man facing a death sentence in High Noon was mirrored in the 1950s by the idea of artists going before McCarthy’s committee, and being forced to name names without anyone taking their side, or defending their rights, either.  The Encyclopedia of Politics, Media, and Popular Culture refers to the “allegorical sell-out of the townspeople" (page 9) in High Noon, in particular.  

It’s easier to do nothing and let evil win, than step-up and become a target one’s self, the movie suggests.

Outland is very much a reiteration of High Noon’s stance, though updated to the milieu of the 1980s.  It’s a film about one man who finds himself in a corrupt system and determines that no matter the cost, he can’t simply be a cog in the wheel.  When he sees that the system -- run by a giant, inhuman corporation -- is not only corrupt but actually murderous, he endeavors to rally the citizens of Io to help him.  But once more, it is easier to accept corruption as the norm than stand-up to it and risk bodily harm for a just cause.

The first connection to consider between High Noon and Outland involves character.  Kane and O’Niel share the name William, and are both family men and law-enforcement officials.  

The second connection revolves around choice of location. High Noon and Outland are both set on the outer edge of the frontier, where established civilization is far distant indeed.  Perhaps it is more apt to say that in both locations there is a veneer of civilization, but it is possible to easily scrape that veneer away.

Outland's director, Peter Hyams references the earlier film in other ways as well.  In High Noon, a train was bound for town, carrying a murderer.  When the train arrived, a whistle blew, and the town came to a kind of dead standstill.  

In Outland, that approaching train has been replaced by a space shuttle preparing to dock.  When it landson the platform, an alarm klaxon sounds, and the whole mining facility, likewise comes to a stop.

Similarly, both Outland and High Noon are “ticking clock” movies.  Both productions frequently cut to compositions focusing on clocks so as to build suspense while the villain's conveyance (either train or space shuttle) nears.  The idea is plain: the clock in both cases is ticking down to a rendezvous with destiny, and possibly death.

As the space shuttle nears Jupiter’s moon, Outland again acknowledges its source of inspiration.  Here, O’Niele goes before a corporate board room and to a saloon to solicit help, or at least sympathy, and finds none.  In High Noon, Kane likewise asks help from churchgoers and drinkers at a saloon, and is similarly rebuffed.  

What’s most critical here, perhaps, is the idea that the “board room” has supplanted the “church” as a place of community authority and morality in Outland.  If anything, this substitution only enhances the idea of a corrupt system, and looking out for one’s self.

The substitution of the corporate board room for a town church, and the move to outer space (and to a grittier style of film-making), help Outland establish its own identity and view-point beyond the studied tribute to High Noon, In other words, Outland takes the ideas of High Noon a bit farther.  Here, the target is explicitly unregulated capitalism (whereas one could make the case that  High Noon concerns any corrupt establishment), and the inclusion of a board room (over a community church), points a finer point on the social critique.

Outside of homage and social commentary, one reason I appreciate Outland so much involves the visualization of difficult life on Io. Here, the movie makers take special pains to create a tangible sense of place, a futuristic frontier town that, according to Sheppard "is just like any other mining town."

Only here, the frontier is even more dangerous than one can imagine, and we see several gory de-pressurizations in the movie. There ain't nothing like that in High Noon, for certain.

But more importantly, the environs of this futuristic outpost on Io are completely and believably rendered in virtually aspect here.. Since space and atmosphere are both at a premium, miners sleep in tiny compartments stacked several levels high and several rows deep. These compartments are not much larger than a casket...and demonstrate visually why miners might lose their minds in this setting.

Likewise, every detail, down to the hookers in the Leisure Club and Sheppard's spacious office, reveal to the audience something important about this location, and how it affects the human psyche.

At about the fifty minute point of Outland, director Peter Hyams ramps up the pace and directs a sustained action sequence that sees O'Niel taking spirited pursuit of Spota. Lensed in long shot and with few cuts (at least at first), this chase is not only exhilarating, it lends an immeasurable sense of reality to the locale.

We see Connery chase his prey from locker room to sleeping quarters, to a cafeteria to a kitchen with precious few cuts and thus precious little fakery.  A sense of geography is preserved, and the result, again, is that we believe our eyes: this is all real.  In many ways, this chase/fight is the film's high point, a crazed, accelerated tour of a futuristic installation that is utilitarian, depressing, and completely believable as an extrapolation of future technology.

So many cinematic stories set on other worlds view humans as perfect (like Star Trek), focus on confrontations with monstrous extra-terrestrials (like Alien) or deal with colossal scope, like the events of a galactic war (Star Wars). All of those franchise films are great, and I absolutely love them all dearly, but I can also appreciate the uniqueness of Outland: that it concerns human characters in space, not phantasmagoria. The filmmakers didn't feel the need to include any other fantasy elements, and the film is all the stronger for its singularity of focus. It is what it is: a personal confrontation on the newest human frontier; a test of self when one’s established view of self has been shattered.

I always like to point one other fact regarding great science fiction or fantasy films of the past, and I’ll do so again here. 

Everything about Outland had to be created from scratch. 

Every set had to be built from the ground up. A believable world had to be imagined, and then erected with a fine eye towards detail.  There was no computer generated imagery to take the load off real world construction, miniature-building, and other tasks  The resulting film is immersive and tense and involving, and that means that the production designers and art directors did a magnificent job.

I'm old enough to remember how shabbily Outland was received upon release by critics both in and out of the genre. Today, most of their complaints don't really hold up.

For instance, I remember one prominent science fiction author of the day expressing disappointment that the film ends with O'Niel simply punching out his enemy, Sheppard. This critic complained that it was an anti-climax -- and sorely disappointing -- not to have Sheppard murdered by the hero.

Well, all I can say in response is that the review must not have paid close attention to the film. Because when Sheppard contacts his bosses to acquire assassins, they warn him in no uncertain terms that "the next guy coming for someone will be coming for you." 

In other words, by defeating Sheppard's assassins and exposing the drug ring, O'Niel has already beaten his enemy. Sheppard's own allies are going to kill him, so O'Niel doesn't need to commit murder.

I find this a rather elegant resolution, rather than simply having O'Niel blast Sheppard with a shotgun.


Well, O'Niel could have murdered Sheppard at any point in the story if he had wanted to. This isn't really a story about O'Niel committing murder to make his point; it's a story about O'Niel's redemption, and his individual method for beating "City Hall."  What would be the point of killing Sheppard and then going to jail? At least this way, O'Niel wins, and isn't permanently separated from his family.

It's much better, I believe, to leave Sheppard dangling on the hook, waiting to be offed by the very people he conspired with.  That's sweet justice, as opposed to blunt-faced murder.  Again, it's illuminating to remember that many people saw High Noon as a rejection of violence as a meaningful solution to problems.  Though there is violence aplenty in Outland, to be certain, one could make the same claim here.  The protagonist, O'Niel, doesn't engage in any violence that would land him on the wrong side of the law, and thus sacrifice his standing as a just man.

A long-time victim of misplaced criticism, Outland is a great film with one foot in the past, and one in the future.  With nods to cinematic history, and to the then-contemporary "space race" trend in the American cinema, the Peter Hyams film reminds audiences that even when man goes to the stars he will take all of his own strengths and weaknesses along for the ride.

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