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January 2012

Outland

cast: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking, and Steven Berkoff

writer and director: Peter Hyams

112 minutes (15) 1981
widescreen ratio 2.20:1
Warner DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Outland

Sean Connery wasn't in Moonraker - the James Bond escapade with the fleet of space shuttles. That was Roger Moore. And Connery's track-record in genre movies is uneven at best. Zardoz (1974) was a very strange movie indeed with its giant flying head, and topless nipple-count fashion-sense. He was a solid presence as Allan Quatermain in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), and in the first and best Highlander (1986). But, then again, Outland is barely SF at all. The setting is Io, volcanic third moon of Jupiter, which means the action is housed in a kind of Gerry Anderson-style model-installation, and they wear environment suits. But that's just the setting. There's little essentially science fictional about the storyline itself.

A long time before another Bond - Daniel Craig, was doing Cowboys & Aliens (2011), the cine-literate will recognise Outland as High Noon (1952) - with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly transmogrified into outer space, another in a lineage of westerns reconfigured as space fiction, from the wild frontier to the final frontier. Writer-director Peter Hyams has a better track-record, with Capricorn One (1977), the movie of Arthur C. Clarke's 2010 (1984), and Jean-Claude Van Damme's Timecop (1994). Hyams and Connery do their artful best here, and Alan Dean Foster did a workmanlike movie-novelisation (Warner, March 1981). And they work, kind-of, in a mildly entertaining way.

There's a disturbing incident deep in the moon's titanium mine. A toiling worker goes wacko, starts hallucinating giant space-spiders crawling up his space-suited legs. He rips the suit open with splatterful decompressive results. Another miner walks through a complicated failsafe airlock elevator without an environment suit, and splatters himself too. Connery is the incoming marshal, William T. O'Niel, on yet another lousy off-world assignment: a new tour-of-duty, dragging long-suffering wife Carol (Kika Markham), and son Paul (Nicholas Barnes), along with him. Until O'Niel gets back to their apartment to find her video-message: she's had enough. She's quit, to give Paul and his teeth-brace a chance to experience life on the home-world he's never seen. He re-watches the film without expression. "Some people just can't take it," says company-Doc Lazarus (an excellent Frances Sternhagen), although she's explaining the 28 miner-deaths in six months, rather than his wife on the Earth-bound shuttle. The bodies are "buried at sea and all that crap," jettisoned into space thereby leaving no evidence.

Interiors are grimly dark and claustrophobic. There's a hexagonal tube-walk reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but it's lived-in industrial grimy, more like the Nostromo from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), but with spatterings of the Con-Am logo to implicate rapacious corporate capitalism. O'Niel wears a blue uniform with peaked cap. He says 'arse-hole', not 'ass-hole'. He's granite-tough and incorruptible. The installation's general manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) suggests he's got something to prove. But if he's a loner in search of some unspecific redemption, there are no explanatory flashbacks. No psychological motivation. No clue even to what the 'T' in his name stands for, 'Tiberius' perhaps?

Elsewhere in the cast, the names provide coded keys. Lazarus, after all, implies resurrection. Then there's Steven Berkoff and John Manning-Redwood as Sagan and Lowell, the names of two renowned astronomers. Meanwhile, O'Niel is called to another crisis, a man (Sagan) holed-up in his room brutalising a hysterical hooker. He tries negotiation tactics to talk him down while his deputy, Sergeant Montone (James B. Sikking, from TV's Hill Street Blues) sneaks through the vent-shafts, enters the room behind and blasts the perp. A result that vetos interrogation, but at least allows O'Niel chance to rummage through the body-bag, and extract a sample that Lazarus analyses.

She finds a 'new molecule' in the blood-sample. One she can't identify; a synthetic narcotic, a super-strength PDE amphetamine. It accelerates work-performance short-term, but causes the psychosis that tips them over, sends them berserk. It's the culprit, the cause of the maniac deaths. O'Niel pursues another suspect, who disposes of a drug-sachet in a boiling food-cauldron. He plunges his hand in to retrieve it. But, placed in an iso-cube, this perp is also killed before he can be questioned. O'Niel watches surveillance-screens of the leisure club where holo-porn dancers writhe to an electro-disco 'Ganymede' soundtrack.

Its footage confirms Sheppard's involvement. It's he who runs the drug distribution ring. So when O'Niel finds and destroys a drug-stash in a meat-locker Sheppard warns him off, while plays golf, in a direct reference to Goldfinger warning-off Bond. The stim enables the installation to meet and exceed its quotas; the collateral damage in trashed miners is an unfortunate but acceptable side-effect. It works. Don't meddle. Don't rock the boat. When O'Niel refuses to be bought-off, Sheppard radios for 'heavies' to resolve the situation, to neutralise the troublesome lawman. Through a bug he's planted on the line O'Niel knows the showdown is coming.

This is the 'High Noon' moment. This is the 'Do not forsake me, Oh my Darling' moment. Digitals count down towards the shuttle's arrival. There are long perspective-shots around empty corridors and rooms. And just as Gary Cooper's Marshal Will Kane prepares for his confrontation with the vengeful Miller gang, so O'Niel prepares. The compliant company cops are young, they have families. He'll get no back-up from them. He appeals to the miners for assistance. No help there either. He's the cop, where are his men? "My men are shit," he spits out. In a last-minute transmission-link to Carol she pleads with him. They love him, there's still time, won't he come with them? Is the job so important? But, like Gary Cooper, he's the one good man prepared to make a stand.

For Cooper it was his new bride Grace Kelly who turns up trumps at the last-minute. As the two assassins arrive and the shooting starts there's only Lazarus there for him. But despite this effectively suspense-full tension build-up the final face-off is quickly sorted. One of the heavies falls foul of O'Niel's booby-trap in the hexagonal tube-walk. As Lazarus seals off bulkheads a wounded O'Niel suits up and circles around outside; the second bad guy is in the hydroponic greenhouse. He sees O'Niel moving outside, he shoots, punctures the glass, and it explodes outwards, killing him. Is there a third? No, but O'Niel's weak deputy Ballard (Clarke Peters), is in Sheppard's pay, and jumps him. They wrestle in their cumbersome void-suits until O'Niel severs his oxy-tube, and he's extremely terminated. Finally, back in the bar he faces Sheppard, and punches him out. Then video-calls Carol; saying he will be joining them for the Earth-trip after all. Job done... End transmission. Roll credits.

Sean Connery's track-record in genre movies is uneven at best. Outland is no classic, but it kind-of works, in a mildly entertaining way.



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