REVIEW [Movies]: “Outland”

5 07 2010

On Jupiter's moon he's the only law.

So. I’ve not watched “High Noon,” the film to which “Outland” (1983) is partially indebted. I was, however, moderately familiar with “High Noon”‘s premise: a sheriff reluctantly (and without the support of the townspeople) confronts a quartet of villains. “High Noon” was filmed in real-time, a relative novelty for 1952. In that case it worked because the film’s central plot concerned Sheriff Kane (Gary Cooper) awaiting the train that would deliver the villains. “Outland” employs no such technique, but it does sufficiently transplant “High Noon”‘s theme of greed and graft and the sometimes solitary pursuit of justice.

Sean Connery plays O’Niel, a federal marshal assigned to a mining facility on the Jovian moon Io. After a series of gruesome miner deaths, he discovers a corporate conspiracy: many miners have been consuming an illicit drug that increases productivity but induces psychosis as well. Evidence seems to point to operations manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) who attempts to bribe O’Niel when confronted with accusation of supplying the drug. O’Niel places Sheppard under surveillance and later overhears of the impending arrival of goons hired to kill O’Niel.

I’m not aware of what motivated the reluctance of the townspeople in “High Noon,” but in “Outland,” the miners seem to have been enticed (off-screen) with something resembling revenue sharing. Any criminal prosecution of the facility’s administrators would certainly inhibit profitability, but I didn’t understand how these average miners would not assist O’Niel. Their co-workers were dying, indeed, killed by a corporation seemingly unconcerned with their well-being. Granted, mining is a dangerous job; space mining particularly so. I can’t think of another movie about mining where something didn’t go wrong.

tangent: Even “October Sky,” which was as much about mining as it was about space, included a disaster.

I thought that these miners would realize the insidious lengths to which their employers would chase a profit and revolt against them, but much of “Outland”‘s drama stems from this ideological difference, and the movie spends its first two-thirds with O’Niel conducting sci-fi detective work (read: doing stuff with computers).

tangent: I couldn’t reconcile how O’Niel (a Scotsman) and his wife (a Briton) produced a son who spoke with an American accent. Evidently, the film’s producers dubbed one over during post-production (think: Aunt Beru in “Star Wars”).

For a movie that’s almost thirty years old, the intensity of its action sequences hold up, although getting there’s a drag. Pacing could have been more consistent. O’Niel’s investigation advances in a perfunctory way and with the usual story beats, but as soon as he discovers that a hit-squad’s been sicced upon him, he (and the audience) simply wait for them to arrive. It’s during this (down)time that O’Niel unnecessarily ties up some loose narrative threads: he captures (or kills) two of Sheppard’s collaborators.

Although “Outland” could be dismissed as possessing a procedural plot, it’s not without merit; its production design is quite impressive. It possesses that singularly important quality of any decent sci-fi flick: its world appears lived-in. Sure, O’Niel matches wits with an assassin in a greenhouse the size of fifteen football fields, but the greenhouse looks like it could actually work.

tangent: Production Designer Philip Harrison and Connery would work together again on the set on “Never Say Never Again,” considered the only “unofficial” James Bond movie as it was produced by Warner Bros. and not EON Productions.

“Outland” is available on DVD and Netflix (streaming video).