Friday, November 27, 2015

Outland

S P O I L E R S

William O'Neil (Sean Connery) is the new Marshall in town.  His wife and child are unhappy in such a dank hellhole, but it's a living. O'Neil wonders why local mine workers are seemingly flipping out and taking their own lives.  The other so-called lawmen and the miners' company are unconcerned as it "happens every so often".  O'Neil begins digging and with the help of cranky physician Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) discovers the deceased have significant levels of a particular amphetamine in their blood.  A drug that allows many hours of nonstop, tireless work for Conglomerates Amalgamated.  It explains why Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle), general manager boasts this his franchise has broken company productivity records and that everyone has received bonus checks.  But the cost is the sanity and eventually the lives of the laborers.

O'Neil sets out to nail Sheppard.  The Marshall intercepts and destroys a large shipment of the vital drug.  C.A. will not have its profitability interrupted.  The second half of 1981's OUTLAND will largely resemble the 1952 Western HIGH NOON.   But the newer film is, in fact, a science fiction opus, set in a titanium mining outpost on Io, one of Jupiter's moons.  Aside from the setting and technology, and that characters need specialized helmets to breathe out of doors, this age old tale of corporate greed and the expendability of Man could've been set in any terrestrial locale.

ALIEN, released a few years earlier and to which OUTLAND has often been compared, was another sci-fi thriller with similar themes. Why should we think that mankind would behave any differently in space? That for all of the advancement of tech we would still be the same selfish, sin-ridden corruptibles, lacking honor, bravery, and even a shred of human decency?  Everyone except the new Marshall, cut of a rare cloth, and er, "not of this world".  Intellect may foster much advancement in the future, when deep space is colonized and is a viable destination, but morality, writer/director Peter Hyams argues, will not follow in kind.

All interesting thematically, but is OUTLAND exemplary science fiction, or at least a decent movie? More the latter, and far less thoughtful than SOLARIS, BLADE RUNNER, or several others of the genre.  Despite a somewhat sluggish pace at times, I think OUTLAND is a pretty good, solid bit of entertainment, with generally impressive special effects.  Especially with its technology,  new in its day, that allows actors to convincingly move around miniatures.  Movies like this live and die on effects, like it or not, and OUTLAND still looks pretty good.  Sci-fi geeks will have plenty to stare at.

But the script is a bit simplistic.  Things wrap up a bit too easily, too.  Like so many films, the ideas are better than the development of them. For me, the character development in OUTLAND isn't entirely satisfactory, but for this story, I guess it was enough.  The actors are appropriately sullen, though Sternhagen livens things up with her crotchety manner.  Quite thankfully, she wasn't turned into a love interest.   Hyams, director of BUSTING, CAPRICORN ONE, RUNNING SCARED, 2010, and several others, does his usual servicable job and gets to stage another chase scene.

I mentioned the slow pace.  I actually really love deliberate science fiction dramas, all the more time to immerse oneself in the themes, to discern subtext.  I would've preferred more from OUTLAND than simply obvious homages to Westerns.

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