OUTLAND (1981)


From Tuesday, January 8, 2008.

Written & Directed by Peter Hyams, starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle and James B. Sikking, and featuring a score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Connery is Marshal William T. O’Niel, the “one good space-cop” protecting a mining colony on a moon orbiting Jupiter. Previous marshals had accepted bribes to ignore crime and corruption (and a nasty drug ring), but we wouldn’t have much of a story if O’Niel continued the status quo. It’s essentially HIGH NOON in space, but if yer gonna steal, steal from the good stuff!

It’ll finish Thursday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 3.26.2012

OUTLAND is, in short, one of those movies that makes me an old fashioned nerd. It is flawed, and dated, and yet I have great affection for it. If you want to focus more on the science part than the fiction in “science fiction” you could fault OUTLAND for inaccuracies of physics, like the depressurization conditions required for a human body to explode inside a space suit, or what direction blood would flow in zero gravity. If you are one of those ironic hipster nerds who think Ray Harryhausen’s work looks cheap, and the CGI Yoda trumps Frank Oz’s muppet Yoda, you might fault OUTLAND for its model and matte work. If however you’re an old fashioned nerd, a nerd who values precedent as well as innovation, you can see this movie for its unique and exciting strengths.

I suspect the same poindexters who have a problem with the liberties OUTLAND takes with gravity would also take issue with Buster Crabbe’s flame-sparking, chainsaw-sounding rocket in the 1930’s FLASH GORDON serials. “Bursts of flame could not occur in space where there is no oxygen for the fire to consume,” the disciples of THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy would declare, “nor would we hear that buzzing exhaust in a vacuum.” This is where I need to break with some of my nerd counterparts; if it makes for a more exciting story then I don’t care about that other stuff. Flash Gordon’s rocket looks and sounds cool, and when I was in 6th grade, blood floating upwards from OUTLAND’s dead body in a zero-gravity prison cell was one of the most disturbing murders I had ever seen in a movie. OUTLAND opened two years after ALIEN defined what grunt labor in space would look like, and a mere six weeks after the first mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia reignited a generation’s collective interest in space exploration. This movie may have not nailed every technical aspect, but it should be credited with imagining functions of working in space that few movies had done before, and even fewer as vividly.

#IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp, but I suspect that no genre in film is subject to as precise scrutiny as science fiction. In romances we accept the rarity of mutual orgasm in love scenes because hell, who doesn’t aspire to that, even if it’s about as likely as the pressure conditions required to crush a body in a space suit. Cop movies and legal thrillers rarely get called out for authentic police or courtroom procedures. Word to the wise: if you’ve ever cheered for the “surprise witness” in a court movie, then you need to relinquish your credentials to criticize an imaginative movie like OUTLAND over a few technical indiscretions.

As long as I’m showing my age stripes, I need to go on record about something more expansive than model and matte work. I like any art that shows evidence of human contact: little flaws that bespeak individual experience. Some folks like seeing crystal clear digital projection of CGI generated images. Me, I just saw a print of Bela Tarr’s DAMNATION at the Harvard Film Archive. It was loaded with the kind of smudges, sound pops and platter scratches that Tarantino and Rodriguez faked to lend authenticity to GRINDHOUSE. I love that stuff, just as I love being able to spot finger imprints in the fur of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion model for the 1933 KING KONG. I love OUTLAND’s opening sequence where we first learn about the mining operation on Io. Of course that model work will never fool anyone into thinking that Hyams & Co. actually went on location in space, but that model perfectly orients the audience for the finale.

Oops, I’ve mentioned the finale, and without making a ***Spolier Alert***! Well nevermind finale spoilers; I’m not going to tell you what happens, I’m more focused on how it happens. There is an amazing chase sequence that occurs midway through OUTLAND. Marshal O’Niel runs down one of his suspects through a multi-leveled industrial labyrinth. The editing in this chase is so intense, and the set is such a feat of production design, that some have said it undercuts the finale. I can see that point of view, but I think the finale takes a bold reversal of expectation by going in a thoroughly different direction than that chase in the middle. Rather than going bigger and bolder, they went eerier and quieter, and yes they even adhered to a few laws of gravity.

So there you have it: OUTLAND — cool cop story, thrillingly imaginative space opera, state of the art film experience of a bygone era. If you’re the moviegoer who does not fault PLANET OF THE APES for dated make-up (which was itself state of the art, once upon a time) or METROPOLIS for damn near literally wearing its heart on its sleeve (what with all that chest-clutching) then you might also be the fan who can recognize OUTLAND for its place in the nerd canon.

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One Response to “OUTLAND (1981)”

  1. Neil Says:

    God bless matte work, God bless models, God bless small imperfections, and God bless Outland! Fine encomium here from you, JGD. I really enjoyed it.

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