Posted by gregferrara on December 23, 2012
Sometime after the release of Star Wars, Hollywood had the bright idea to set everything in space because surely it was the space setting that was responsible for Star Wars success, right? Sometimes, the outer space stuff really worked and sometimes it didn’t (I was going to list examples but then I thought better of it because that’s all the comment thread would be about – “You thought that one didn’t work?!?!”) but one thing that Hollywood excels at is trying something ten, twenty, thirty… fifty thousand times until they’re absolutely sure they’ve bled it dry. Usually by that point someone else has come up with another good idea that they can run through the “let’s kill it” machine until the box office rolls over and dies. And when that doesn’t even work there’s always sequels and remakes. There are ALWAYS sequels and remakes. That said, sometimes that works, too. And one of those cases came in 1981 when Peter Hyams wrote and directed Outland, a loose remake of Fred Zinneman’s High Noon from 1952.
One of the funny things about movies made at the dawn of the personal computer age (the personal computer, Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 1982, was really coming into its own around this time) is how filmmakers assumed that the current technology would be the technology forever. For instance, every text display shown in the movie is green on black with little beeping noises for each letter typed. The film opens this way, in fact, in an inadvertently funny bit of expository detail. Funny because the movie wants to show us the outer space special effects (Jupiter, Io, the space station) before the movie starts and everyone is holed up inside the space station for the duration but can think of no legitimate reason to do so unless they spend a ridiculous amount of time giving the viewer every possible detail of the environment. There are stats on where we are (Jupiter and Io) and how far each is from the other. How much time it takes to get from one to the other and the space station. The gravitational pressure, the atmospheric composition, the name of the company running the mine, the amount of people who work for the mine, what their duties are, how many are assigned to each duty, what is mined there, the amount of time people work in each duty, etc. And that’s a sincere et cetera. There’s more that follows but that was the point I started laughing. I mean, okay, start the damn movie already!
So the computer printouts and beeping stops and we’re led down the mines to several workers griping about their day and how the guys at the top don’t really work at all. That’s when one of them starts screaming about a spider in his suit to which everyone assumes he’s joking because, hey, a spider in the suit is hilarious (apparently, working in a mine in outer space dulls the wit). After a few moments of screaming without anyone helping to remove that spider he takes matters into his own hands and begins to remove his suit, the thing that’s keeping him from blowing up (that may not happen in real life – click here and scroll down to “fallacies” – but it sure makes for some awesome Scanners-like special effects scenes). Once he removes it, his head, indeed, explodes inside his helmet.
Shortly after, a new Marshall shows up, William O’Niel (no, that’s not a typo – his shirt tag says “O’Neil” but everything else with his name says “O’Niel” so I’ll go with the majority), played by Sean Connery, which means I don’t need to tell you he does a superb job. He immediately hates the General Manager of the operation, Mark Sheppard, played by Peter Boyle, which means I once again don’t need to tell you he does a superb job. Sheppard welcomes the new Marshall by telling him in front of everyone that his miners work hard and play hard and if he’s smart he’ll leave them alone. Not long after more strange suicidal incidents occur and O’Niel goes to the station doctor, Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen, which means I don’t… oh, you get it) to find out why. Turns out there’s an illegal drug coming on board that heightens productivity but also makes the workers psychotic. She discovers this in another great “technology of the moment” scene where she looks at a green grid on a computer screen that starts to undulate and make a funny UFO sound effect which, somehow, alerts her that it’s a narcotic.
But, of course, it goes much deeper. O’Niel’s own men, led by Montone (the great and underrated James Sikking), are in on the scheme to the extent that they’re paid to look the other way. Montone says as much in the middle of a racquetball game with O’Niel (the wall lights up the quadrant where the ball hits because, once again, lights means future). O’Niel tells him to keep taking his money because he doesn’t want him, he wants Sheppard. To make matters even worse, O’Niel’s wife and son have left him because they’re sick of living on space stations and want to go back to earth so he’s all alone, both at work and at home.
He rounds up Sheppard’s dealers, confiscates the drugs and destroys the whole operation, temporarily. Sheppard tells him he’s dead and when the hired killers come on the next shuttle, no one will help him. He’s the true western loner, standing by himself while everyone looks away, putting his life on the line for the good of all.
If you’ve seen High Noon, you have a pretty good idea of where Outland is going with this but what’s surprising is how well Outland succeeds. Peter Hyams directs a tight suspense thriller here that also manages to comment on the exploitation of the occupants of the lower economic strata without any hammer to the head nonsense. Connery’s O’Niel stands by and for his principles without seeming pious or unrealistic as a character, that is, he doesn’t seem like a stand-in for an idea. The movie moves swiftly and uses the lessons learned from Alien and Star Wars before it for its look and feel. The space station feels run down, dirty and on its last leg. Nothing seems new or shiny but dingy and depressing. And the movie manages to hold up after thirty years without seeming too dated, or as undated as a futuristic setting has the chance of being. Obviously, with advances in technology, the slow beeping download of green photos on a computer screen seems silly in the age of tumblr, pinterest and photos anywhere and everywhere they can be posted but it almost works for the film. That is to say, you could believe this space station would have technology seventy years old to cut costs. And as far as unofficial remakes of established classics go, it’s not bad. It manages to be out there with being… outlandish.
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