Long before Joss Whedon made hip the concept of a western-in-space with his TV series Firefly (2002), writer-director Peter Hyams brought us this futuristic tale, inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), set on a mining complex on Jupiter’s moon Io.
Outland opened 30 years ago on May 22, 1981 and I clearly remember my dad and I going to a matinee showing opening day. This ranks right up there among my memorable moviegoing experiences with my dad, which also includes seeing Caddyshack (1980) opening day and spending the rest of the day laughing about our favorite bits — such as rocking the phrase “Oh, but it looks good on you though,” whenever it made any kind of sense. I also remember getting a kick out of seeing just how much he loved Superman (1978).
There was also the time my dad drove my friend Eric and I to see The Black Hole (1979) and when the lights came up at the end my dad was actually sitting in the theater a few rows behind us. It turns out he actually wanted to see the movie too, but didn’t want to “cramp our style” by having “the old man” hang around. It wasn’t the greatest movie, but we all thought the voyage through the black hole at the end was interesting and it lead to a fun discussion in the car. In short, my dad is cool.
The thing I remember us both enjoying about Outland is while it’s clearly set somewhere in the future, released during a time when studios were scrambling to release Star Wars knockoffs, there is not one laser gun blast in the film. The law enforcement’s weapon of choice is the good ol’ trusty shotgun. And while the saloons of the old west have been replaced by futuristic strip clubs, there’s still a scene where a guy gets punched in the face there.
Peter Hyams at that point had co-written (with Stirling Silliphant) the screenplay for the Charles Bronson thriller Telefon (1977). He had also written and directed the films Hanover Street (1979, with Harrison Ford) and another one of my favorites, the awesome conspiracy thriller Capricorn One (1978).
In Outland, Sean Connery plays O’Niel, a Federal Marshal assigned to a one year tour on the Io mining colony. He’s pitted almost immediately against Sheppard (Peter Boyle), the general manager who wants him to look the other way when the workers want to let off a little stream now and then. Also on hand are great underused actors like James B. Sikking (a Hyams regular) and Frances Sternhagen as Lazarus, the outpost’s doctor who becomes one of the few people O’Niel can trust.
The relationship between O’Niel and Lazarus is one of the more interesting elements. Early in the film, O’Niel’s wife Carol (Kika Markham) had left him, taking their young son Paul with her, unable to cope with the fact that Paul has never once set foot on earth. In the hands of other filmmakers, a romance could have easily blossomed between O’Niel and Lazarus — it is after all what movie audiences have been conditioned to expect. But it doesn’t happen here. It’s clear that O’Niel still loves his wife and hopes to work things out with her. The closest Lazarus and O’Niel ever come to expressing any feelings for one another is one great moment where she says to him “Your wife is one stupid lady.” The best part of this is not knowing whether she actually has feelings for him or if she’s just saying this as a good friend.
Fans of Peter Hyams no doubt recognize that the corporation behind the mining outpost is Con-Amalgamate, which is also the name of the company responsible for the faulty life-support system in Capricorn One, and is also referenced in Hyams’ first screenplay, T.R. Baskin (1971).
Outland was the second collaboration between Hyams and composer Jerry Goldsmith, who also scored Capricorn One (which features “Break Out,” one of my six favorite soundtrack cues of all time). For Outland, Goldsmith wrote a very dark score, with rhythmic motifs that build with an overwhelming feeling of dread, especially in several of the early scenes that depict some of the miners going crazy.
The Stravinsky-influenced cue called “Hot Water,” written for an exhilarating chase sequence through the outpost, is one of the highlights of Goldsmith’s career. This particular piece of music also kept my friends and I awake in the middle of the night once during a road trip.
30 years ago, it was a great day at the movies with my dad. Now Outland has become one of my favorites, a movie that’s really hard to turn off once it gets started.
Thanks Dad, for being so cool.