There have been times I’ve purposefully turned a blind eye to wrong doing. Usually small inconsequential things that were unlikely to cause real harm, others not so much. I’m not proud of it and I’ve nearly always regretted it, but it still happens and I think I can venture to say I’m not alone in my guilt. It’s a regrettably human trait, but when we’re surrounded by others who are willing to ignore a problem there are exceptionally few who will risk rocking the boat.
I was recommended Outland (1981) – not to be mistaken with Outlander (2008) – by Paul Gravett a few months ago as an example of an “intense environment” in space comparable to my own setting of Branch, so finding it at bargain price I gave it a much overdue watch.
The synopsis is a familiar one: set aboard a future mining colony on the Jupiter moon ‘Io’ the arrival of a new police Marshall William O’Neil (Sean Connery) stirs up trouble amongst workers, administration and fellow officers alike as he begins investigating a string of unexplained suicides. It’s an admittedly simple setup which stripped of its sci-fi setting, might just as easily be a traditional cop thriller or western of the ‘law man visiting a corrupt locale’ template. At the same time, just as Paul Gravett’s recommendation indicated, I would argue that the setting is one of the film’s most distinctive features.
Being set in a location so distantly removed from civilisation it’s the perfect scenario for human behaviour to go astray, with boundless greed and corporate corruption lent credibility through the environment. Taking a hard sci-fi approach, visually the movie has aged quite well thanks to the functional design seemingly drawing upon traditional mines and oil rigs. There are some surprisingly considerate details too further enforcing the ‘form follows function’ design approach – if you’ll excuse me being a total nerd – perishable foodstuffs are a rarity onboard, believable safety measures are shown and the only firearms used by the police are shotguns; an obvious precaution against puncturing walls and causing decompression. Just about everything has a grimy, worn in quality which on most occasions proves entirely immersive, essentially feeling like a living breathing work space rather than a glorified stage set.
Of particular note is the impressive claustrophobia nurtured throughout adding to the intensity with very little in the way of open spaces and the few there are being dimly lit, gloomy hovels. Even during sequences in the vacuum the grubby space suits perpetuate the sensation of being cramped, leaving the occupants and viewer no escape from the oppressive atmosphere. I’d also like to draw attention to the recurring motif of a hexagonal tunnel (below), for me a visual which creates a disturbing connotation to bee hives in light of station’s obsession with productivity at any cost.
It’s the latter aspects which I would most likely draw upon in my own work, attempting to replicate the feel of a tangible universe through effective implementation of a used future aesthetic. I’ve already researched local industrial estates as a part of my inspiration so the functional, work ready feel of film is of most obvious use to me. But more than this, I suppose what I really want to capture that Outland does so well is the sense of being trapped, overwhelmed and having no escape.
It couldn’t really be called cyberpunk mind you. ‘Low humanity‘ is on display throughout but the technology is incidental with the thematic focus being the enduring greed of humankind rather than the ramifications of killer robots, genetic engineering, cyborgs or computers. Indeed, the film is quite remarkable in this regard for its sheer restraint and maturity. There is some action along with obligatory moments of gross out horror but for the most part this is a slow burner with atmosphere and story taking precedence of crowd pleasing set pieces.
In line with this, the central cast are somewhat offbeat aswell. Yes, O’Niel is played by Sean Connery but he makes for an atypical protagonist compared to typical macho men of the 80’s, there’s a weariness to the character which meshes perfectly with the environment and offsets the usual ‘lone hero’ clichés. Rather than being the traditional man with nothing to lose™ he’s shown to be a more dimensional human being with a great deal to lose in the form of his travel jaded wife and child.
Additionally, I’d like to highlight the lack of so-called “eye candy” for men. The only major female character Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) is thankfully not the plucky young recruit; being bitter, middle-aged and sensibly clothed for the duration. She also serves as a good parallel to O’niel, being similarly disillusioned with the situation on station and having some great snarky dialogue. At any rate, for once its nice to have an older cast who don’t seem preoccupied with being photogenic.
On the downside the film does have its failings. For all the emphasis on realism it still indulges in the erroneous assumption that space suit and airlock decompression causes the body to explode, there’s at least one redundant plot twist and overdubbed child actors should frankly be forbidden from cinema. The real elephant in the room though is simply how heavily indebted to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) it is; everything from the opening titles to the gritty used future aesthetic wears the Alien stamp but in spite of its obvious aspiration Outland never really approaches the brilliance of its predecessor – I couldn’t quite shake the feeling there was xenomorph shaped hole in the film…
There are standout moments however, my favourite being where O’Niel – having uncovered and destroyed the administration’s drug supply – discovers he has been marked for death. Realising he can’t even count on the other police officers for protection, he walks into the crowded worker dining hall and quite literally asks them if anyone can help him; a request no one answers. Considering the situation out on the far reaches of human development with the only common motive for work being greed, it’s a scene that’s chilling but also utterly believable. Everyone would much rather turn a blind eye than risk what they have on a trivial instance of justice in the middle of nowhere.
Outland isn’t a great film, but it is a surprisingly good one. Alien may have taught us that in space no one can hear you scream, but Outland tells us that even if someone does hear you the chances are they won’t give a damn.