We look back at the underrated 1981 Sean Connery action film, Outland, a sci-fi styled remake of High Noon.
THE STORY: On Io, Jupiter’s moon, miners have begun randomly committing suicide in gruesome ways. This is chalked out to their grueling working conditions, but the outpost’s new marshal, William O’Niel (Sean Connery) becomes convinced something else is afoot. Soon, he discovers the deadly truth, that the miners are being given stimulants with the nasty side effect that they cause psychosis. His pursuit of the truth lands him on the hit list of the outpost’s general director, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), who hires professional hit men to deal with the pesky marshal. Knowing that skilled gunmen are on the way, and without anyone to turn to, O’Niel waits to face the men alone.
THE PLAYERS: Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, and Frances Sternhagen. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Directed by Peter Hyams.
I wanted to do a Western. Everybody said, ‘You can’t do a Western; Westerns are dead; nobody will do a Western’. I remember thinking it was weird that this genre that had endured for so long was just gone. But then I woke up and came to the conclusion – obviously after other people – that it was alive and well, but in outer space. I wanted to make a film about the frontier. Not the wonder of it or the glamour of it: I wanted to do something about Dodge City and how hard life was. I wrote it, and by great fortune, Sean Connery wanted to do it. And how many chances do you get to work with Sean Connery? – Peter Hyams – Empire Magazine Interview
THE HISTORY: Outland came along during a rough time in Sean Connery’s career. After leaving the Bond series, Connery managed a slew of respectable hits, including The Anderson Tapes, The Man Who Would Be King and The Wind and the Lion. However, there were also more than a few pricey flops like Richard Lester’s Cuba, with even good movies like The Great Train Robbery underperforming at the box office. Thus, he decided to experiment with a genre that had eluded him up to that point, sci-fi.
You see, sci-fi was all the rage in the late seventies/early eighties thanks to STAR WARS. But, it was the film ALIEN that had the biggest effect on Outland, with Peter Hyams writing and directing something that could almost have been set in the same universe, with heartless company CEO’s, put-upon blue-collar workers in space and a general lived-in aesthetic. However, there was another movie that had an even bigger role to play in Outland’s trip to the big screen and it was the classic Gary Cooper western, High Noon, with the last act of the film virtually a remake, albeit a sci-fi tinged one. The result was a cool flick that should have caught-on at the box office but only managed $17,374,595.
WHY IT’S GREAT: Back when I was in high school, I wrote, directed and starred in a remake of Outland. Let me explain. For my French class, we were asked to do short movies (with camcorders!) and having recently seen it as the midnight movie on the Space channel, I decided to adjust Outland to a high school setting. Basically, instead of miners getting drugs to over-perform, students were getting them. Most importantly, it allowed me to be Sean Connery, a childhood hero of mine. Plus, the year was 1999, so no one would have ever known that I pinched the story from 1981’s Outland, after all – they pinched the story from High Noon so no problem, right?
One A + and twenty years later, I still have a soft spot for Peter Hyams’s entertaining Outland. It’s always been a tad obscure, having come along a few years before Connery hit his stride as a middle-aged superstar. Back then he was kind of in limbo, with the public still strongly associating him with James Bond, something he was only really ever able to shake off after winning an Oscar for The Untouchables. He’s perfectly cast as the Gary Cooper-style space marshal. He’s had a great director in Peter Hyams, who was just coming off the underrated Capricorn One and would go on to do the similarly underrated 2010 a few years later. This is one of two movies he made with Connery and he always managed to get to the star’s vulnerable side, with this and The Presidio the only two Connery movies I can think of where he cried.
The only way that you can get into trouble with Sean is if you’re not honest. If you’re straight, and if he asks you a question and you go ”I don’t know” or ”I don’t agree”, you’re okay. If you think you can bullshit him, you’re making one of the biggest mistakes you’ll ever make in your life. My process with Sean was having to prove myself and get his confidence as a filmmaker. It took a while. He used to say ”Hello, boy ” when we first started, and then when our relationship changed it would be ”Hello, cock”. I love him. – Peter Hyams – Money Into Light Interview
His character is the perfect, square-jawed, straight-shooting cowboy archetype. However, Hyams gives him some needed shading, such as the fact that his stubbornness has all but ruined his career, landing him on the inhospitable rock Io, which is bad enough that his wife abandons him in the first act, taking their son with them. It gives him pathos. But, the problem with Outland is the same problem High Noon had – never for a second do you believe that Peter Boyle’s hired thugs are any threat to Sean Connery, possibly the toughest action star of all time. Heck, by the point they show up Connery’s already been through the wringer and there’s no doubt that he’s gonna dispatch the goons with relative ease.
The supporting cast is particularly strong, if unusual, in this one. Peter Boyle, now mostly known for his comedic roles, is the heavy. He never overplays the part, rather acting like a frustrated manager resigned to the realities of his job. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he will if he has to (as long as he doesn’t get his hands dirty). The film is all but stolen by Frances Sternhagen as the moon’s alcoholic, washed-up doctor, a role originally written for a man but one she nails, having a nice interplay with Connery. They start at each other’s throats but you feel their mutual, grudging respect build up throughout the film. It’s also worth noting that the technical credits to this one are top-notch, with great VFX for the era, atmospheric lensing by Stephen Goldblatt (although I wonder if Hyams himself shot the movie as it carries his distinct look) and a killer score by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith.
BEST SCENE: Outland’s got a bunch of nifty action sequences and one of the showstoppers is a great foot chase through the space station, culminating in a hand to hand scrap between Connery and one of Boyle’s drug-runners. Hyams has always had a knack for shooting chase sequences, and this is a good one
SEE IT: Outland is available on Blu-ray and digitally on iTunes, Google Play, etc. One warning – avoid the old DVD version of the film. It came out in the early days of the technology and sports one of the worst transfers I’ve ever seen.
PARTING SHOT: Outland is a forgotten gem in both Sean Connery and Peter Hyams’s respective filmographies. It’s a really nifty little sci-fi action flick and especially worth checking out of you’re a fan of genre movies from this era. Check it out!