Outland (film)

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Outlandcover.jpg

The ultimate enemy is still man.

Outland is a 1981 science-fiction film written and directed by Peter Hyams, starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle and James Sikking. Set in a mining colony on Io, one of The Moons of Jupiter, this underrated film is generally regarded as a Space Western, and often lazily dismissed as High Noon in space.

The film's hero, Federal Marshal W.T. O'Niel (Connery), is assigned to a one-year tour of duty in Con Am 27, a titanium ore mining outpost on Io. O'Niel investigates a series of violent deaths among the miners, which have been dismissed as accidents or suicides by corrupt mine management, cynical police and indifferent medical staff. He discovers that the dead miners have been using an amphetamine called Polydichloric Euthimal which enormously increases their work output, but eventually causes psychotic behaviour that leads to their deaths in the dangerous mining environment.

O'Niel tracks down and arrests one drug dealer, and follows the trail to Sheppard (Boyle), the administrator of the outpost, who is complicit in the drug-dealing. Sheppard has bribed O'Niel's deputy Montone to turn a blind eye, and it quickly becomes clear to O'Niel that he cannot rely on any of his fellow officers. Even his wife, frustrated that he considers his duty more important than his family, abandons him, leaving a message pleading with him to return with her to Earth.

Undeterred, O'Niel intercepts and destroys a large shipment of drugs. He confronts Sheppard, who asks him why he bothered when nobody else wants the drug shipments stopped, because they make the workers happy, so production is up, so the corporate owners are happy, so Sheppard is happy. O'Niel vows to expose the entire scheme, and Sheppard notifies his contact on the space station who sends two off-world hit-men to murder him.

Sheppard puts out the word that the killers are due to arrive on the next shuttle. As the time to landing counts down, O'Niel's corrupt deputies desert him, and his attempts to recruit help from the mining station staff are met with contemptuous rejection. In the end, only the outpost's medical officer Dr. Lazarus (Sternhagen) helps him in a desperate kill-or-be-killed hunt through the colony.


Outland contains examples of many tropes, including:[edit | hide | hide all]

  • The Alcatraz: O'Niel keeps his prisoners suspended in a spacesuit in airless zero-gravity cells. Unfortunately the prisoner's helplessness makes it all too easy for someone to kill him by cutting his air tether.
  • Bad Cop, Incompetent Cop: Pretty much all of them except O'Niel.

O'Niel (entering the company mess hall): "I could do with some help!"
(Everyone avoids his eye)
Rudd: "You're supposed to protect us! You're the police. It's your job! Where are your men?"
O'Niel: "My men? My men are shit!"

  • Big Brother Is Employing You: O'Niel can listen in on phone conversations and uses CCTV cameras installed inside the colony to track the conspirators. Later those same cameras are used to track O'Niel when he's fighting for his life.
  • Bulletproof Vest: Or strangle-proof collar.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Sheppard.
  • Determinator: Apart from his general stubbornness, O'Niel plunges his bare hand into a pan full of boiling oil to retrieve evidence dumped there by a drug smuggler.
  • Dr. Jerk: Dr. Lazarus. "I'm unpleasant, I'm not stupid. I can count!" Fortunately she's a Jerk with a Heart of Gold since she's the only one who sticks by O'Niel when the chips are down.
  • Frontier Doctor: Dr. Lazarus. "You know, you haven't your medical all-star here. Company doctors are like ship's doctors. Most are one shuttle-flight ahead of a malpractice suit."
  • Heel Face Turn: Dr. Lazarus, Montone.
  • Hologram. Naked holographic figures dance (and copulate) in the bar used by the miners.
  • Meaningful Name: Dr. Lazarus. O'Niel's persistence pushes the cynical, indifferent doctor, who couldn't be bothered to perform autopsies on any of the dead miners, into discovering traces of the fatal drug in the blood of a recent victim. Inspired by her success, she rediscovers her self-respect and helps O'Niel defeat the assassins.
  • Mundane Dogmatic: Outland falls at the hard end of Mohs Scale of Sci Fi Hardness. The hero and the leading lady are middle-aged, unattractive (by movie standards) and cynical. The bad guys are not aliens or galactic emperors, but drug-dealers, corrupt cops and venal businessmen. The weapons are shotguns. It takes a year for spaceships to travel from Earth to Io, with the passengers in cryo-freezing units.
  • Mind Screw: O'Niel to his prisoner, kept in an airless zero-G cell.

"You know, you're going to love being here, though most people do start to go a little crazy at night when they can't feel the floor. Oh, and sometimes the air tether gets knotted and the man suffocates but, ah, that doesn't happen too often."

  • Office Golf: Sheppard plays an interactive videogame version due to the limited space in his office.
  • Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future: Not a graphic interface in sight.
    • The golf videogame is pretty awesome though.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Subverted. O'Niel looks like he's going to give one of these to Sheppard, then says "Oh, fuck it!" and just decks the man.
  • Race Against the Clock: A large digital clock is in the bar showing the exact time-till-arrival of the weekly supply run. When word gets out that the two hitmen are arriving on the 12:00 shuttle to kill O'Niel, this clock takes on the role of a Ticking Countdown of Doom.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: From Sheppard to O'Niel, who later admits to Dr. Lazurus that maybe the reason he's sticking his neck out is to find if he really is as worthless as everyone thinks he is.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Montone.
  • Science Marches On: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 reached Io in 1979, around the same time as Outland was being conceived, but the film did not incorporate any of the new information about the moon's highly unstable volcanic environment. The film ignores the very high level of radiation around Io, which was discovered by Pioneer 10 in 1974.
  • Space Does Not Work That Way: The film aims for an air of gritty realism, but there are plenty of examples of Hollywood Science:
    • Explosive Decompression: Outland loves this one! Frequent and messy!
    • In Space Everyone Can See Your Face: A classic example. Every space suit has a ring of extremely bright lights on the inside solely to illuminate the wearer's face. At least its justified this way.
    • Space Is Noisy: In the scenes outside the station in "zero pressure", the environment seems to be just as noisy as if there was an atmosphere.
  • Space Western: A frequently-heard criticism of the film is that it is "High Noon in space", which misses the point completely, as should be obvious to any reader of this wiki. However the basic concept of a gun-toting lawman in a corrupt frontier mining town, fighting a lone battle for justice, is definitely drawn from the Western genre.
  • Too Dumb to Live: One of the hitmen sent after O'Niel is ridiclously easily baited into shooting the glass in the greenhouse sector, the only thing between him and the vacuum.
  • Used Future: Outland depicts a mining "colony" that is as dirty, cramped, overcrowded and "used" as the crummiest oil-rig of today.