Friday, July 29, 2011

Film Friday: Outland (1981)

Outland is one of my favorite science fiction films. It’s gritty. It’s realistic. It’s got cool characters, memorable dialog, and an as~kicking Sean Connery. What could be better? What’s more, Outland turns a certain commie western on its head.

** spoiler alert**

To satisfy the resource hungry earth, Con-Amalgamate, i.e. “the company,” has set up mines all over the solar system. These mines are like mining towns in the old west, complete with bars, prostitutes, and federal marshals, though it's all contained within a single station. The marshals rotate between stations every year or two and the newest marshal on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, is Marshal William T. O’Neill (Sean Connery).

It doesn’t take O’Neill long to discover the miners are taking a drug called polydichloric euthymol, which makes you work like a dog and then makes you psychotic. The thing is, O’Neill isn’t the best or the brightest and he has a fairly poor reputation. So everyone assumes he’ll take some money and look the other way. But he doesn’t. And when he doesn’t, the mine’s General Manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle), decides O’Neill must die. Soon, everyone at the mine is waiting for the arrival of the next shuttle. . . which carries two hired killers who are coming for Marshal O’Neill.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Outland is essentially a science fiction remake of High Noon. Though there is a key difference.

High Noon was written by communist sympathizer Carl Foreman. Foreman intentionally wrote the sheriff character (played by Gary Cooper) to be weak and anti-heroic: Cooper was a tough and brave sheriff until he got married to a Quaker who hates all violence, no matter what the reason. This puts Cooper in an awkward position when he learns that some criminals he sent to prison are returning to town to seek revenge. In the past he would have stood against them, but now he’s afraid to because he doesn’t want to risk losing his wife. He tries to unload his duty on the townsfolk, but they are cowardly and hypocritical, and they even angrily blame him for bringing the bad guys upon them. In the end, he has no choice but to fight. And the lesson Foreman hoped to impart from this was there is no place for heroism in Cold-War America.

Outland starts with a similar set up. Connery is neither morally strong nor imbued with a sense of heroism. His wife wants him to quit and go home to Earth; she even leaves with their son to force Connery's hand, leaving Connery a ticket to join them. And all the people he meets are as corrupt, cowardly and hypocritical as the townsfolk in High Noon.

But then something changes. Unlike Cooper, who stands alone, Connery finds an ally and she is one heck of an ally! Frances Sternhagen plays Dr. Lazarus, a cranky, nasty, old company doctor. She doesn’t like Connery. In fact, she likes no one. But after she realizes there’s more to Connery than meets the eye, she decides to help him. Of all the mine employees, she’s the only one who lifts a finger to help Connery and she does it because it’s the right thing to do. And that makes her the exact opposite of the message Foreman was sending in High Noon. Her actions tell us that heroes make a difference and anyone, in any profession, at any stage of their lives can be a hero.

There’s another key difference too. Unlike Cooper, who is afraid and conflicted and only fights because he must (in fact, you get the feeling he’s just too afraid to run away), Connery fights to prove to himself that he’s a better man than he and everyone else thinks. This leads to what I think is one of the finest acting moments in Connery’s career, as he explains:
They sent me here to this pile of shit because they think I belong here. I want to find out if . . . . well if they're right. There's a whole machine that works because everybody does what they are supposed to. And I found out . . . . I was supposed to be something I didn't like. . . . That's what's in the program. That's my rotten little part in the rotten machine. . . . I don't like it, so I'm going to find out if they're right.
Connery needs to prove to himself that he's a decent man. That is a powerful motive. It also makes him the anti-Cooper. Whereas Cooper is the perfect man fallen, Connery is the imperfect man rising. Cooper teaches that it’s pointless to fight evil, Connery teaches that it’s essential to our very beings.

It is through these two changes that Peter Hyams, the writer and director of Outland completely flips the intended meaning of High Noon. And interestingly, as something of a final slap, right after Connery’s motive for staying is revealed, Sternhagen tells Connery, “your wife is one stupid lady.” This is a total repudiation of the wife who wanted him to flee. . . the same wife who stole Gary Cooper’s courage. Was this intentional by Hyams? I can’t say that it was, but it sure sounds like it.

Beyond this, the rest of the film is quite good too. The effects are gritty and seem very real of what mankind’s first true commercial venture into space will probably be like. The treatment of zero gravity and zero atmosphere are accurate and excellent. The mine itself is no-frills and exactly what you would expect. Living quarters, dining quarters and the police station all feel genuine. The characters are likable too. And the dialog is excellent. For one thing, you get the kind of dialog you would expect. The characters all seem competent in their careers and talk shop except when the plot intrudes. Much of the dialog is highly quotable, such as almost anything Sternhagen says (“I’m unpleasant, I’m not stupid”) or some of the policing moments (“They’re still sponging him off the walls” and “you don’t just lose nuclear detonators and then find them”). But my favorite line comes from Connery telling Sternhagen that she needs to provide him with a report:
“I’d like a report of all the incidents in the last six months. I’d like it soon, or I might just kick your nasty ass all over this room. That's a marshal joke.”
That line has come in useful more than once.


AndrewPrice said...

If you haven't already seen it, JG has published a review of Captain America at BH today!

Here's the link: Captain America

Tennessee Jed said...

Really nice review, Andrew. As a huge Connery fan, I always enjoyed this film. To be honest, it has been quite a while, and although I clearly got the similarities to High Noon, will freely admit I had never been aware of the communist director connection. I'd have to say he missed the mark in his message there as well.

Pete Boyle, son of Uncle Pete of 50's t.v. is a very underrated actor, and I had forgotten he was in this :-)

Nice thing about some of your reviews is that they deal with films I haven't seen in a while and inspire a "RE-view"!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed! I like talking about the older films more than the newer ones in fact because these are films that have interested me throughout the years and which I think have something special going on.

I didn't learn about the Foreman issue until about five years ago. Until then I just got the feeling that High Noon was kind of a different western. It was hard to place my finger on it, but it seemed much more of a downer than other Westerns. Now I know why.

And you're right that Foreman blew that one too (just as he did with Guns of Navarone). I think that's because it's really impossible to do a good movie and still implant the kinds of messages he wanted implanted because at the end, the hero must come through or people won't be interested in the films. So when Cooper stands up in the end or Mallory does his duty in Navarone, all Foreman has achieved is sending the message that "despite whatever distractions may exist, you have to do your duty."

Peter Boyle was great in this. He is 100% believable as the rotten GM of the mine. He's not cartoony evil, he's just all business about it. It's a solid performance.

And I LOVE Sternhagen in this. She just reminds me of so many Americans -- smart ass, fiercely independent, but there when you need them.

Tennessee Jed said...

well now that you mention it, I had forgotten about Frances Sternhagen being in it either. Right now, I associate her with The Closer, possibly my favorite "free" cable show. You are right, she was good (and a heck of a lot younger although I suppose all of us can say that ;D

CrispyRice said...

Love this movie! Great analysis, Andrew. I've always liked how Connery stands because it's the right thing to do, even if no one else is willing to stand with him. And that is so ironic, given that the drugs are killing the workers, you'd think they would be interested in breaking the system, too.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, As hard as it is to believe, this film came out THIRTY years ago! I remember it like it was a month ago. So yeah, we're all a log older at this point.

Sternhagen was just great in this. I always associate her with some of the lines in this film.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Thanks! I think it makes Connery very heroic in this. He's really rising to the occasion to do the right thing. I think the fact he's doing it to prove to himself that he's not a failure makes his conviction even stronger. It's an excellently drawn character!

On the drugs, there is something interesting too. While the GM is pushing the drugs to the workers, they make it clear that THE COMPANY would go crazy if they found out this was going on. So unlike a modern film where this would be the company's doing, this is just a rogue local operator.

I appreciate that a lot in this day and age where corporations are considered pure evil.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Good analysis. The first time I saw Outland, I thought it was a bit nihilistic. But I've seen it several times since, and agree with pretty much everything you said. It is dark, but that's appropriate to the situation. For those who love space opera, this ain't it.

I also saw some of the parallels and contrasts with High Noon,, but your in-depth analysis opened my eyes even farther. Thanks.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Lawhawk and you're welcome! The first couple times I saw it, I had no idea of any meaning behind High Noon. Having since learned about that, it really sheds new light on what is going on here.

For example, I've always found Connery's motivation to be really fascinating, but knowing that he's doing the exact opposite of Cooper just adds another layer of interest for me.

Who knew so much could be going on in such a simple seeming film?

Ed said...

Very nice review Andrew! Thanks for the insight. I knew it was a copy of "High Noon" but I never got the undercurrents. My favorite line (exchange actually):

Sheppard: "If that's your routine then you're a lot smarter than you look. If it's not, then you're a lot dumber."

O'Neill: "I'm probably a lot dumber."

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed, I'm glad you liked it! That's a great exchange. It really shows how casual Sheppard is about what he's doing. In a modern version, he would be ranting and raving. Instead, he just finishes the scene by hitting his golf ball and telling O'Neill "you're dead."

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review, Andrew!

I had heard about the High Noon commie connection before but not in detail.

I never liked High Noon because I thought Cooper's wife and the townsfolk were disgusting cowards.

Because pacifists believe there's nothin' worth dyin' for and that's anti-liberty and anti-life (as well as anti-God IMO).

And just as an aside I've heard lots of people say Jesus was a pacifist but that's not true.
A pacifist would never pick up a whip and unload a can of holy kickass on corrupt moneychangers at a Temple (or wherever).

Also, Jesus said, "no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (or loved ones).

A pacifist wouldn't qualify for the greatest love man could show: to risk his life and possibly die protecting his family, friends and countrymen.
I could go on about how God is pro-free will and pro-liberty but I think I made my point.

Ghandi OTOH was a genuine pacifist and I don't see why anyone thinks he was a great man.
His passive protests wouldn't have worked on the Nazis, Islamists or anyone else other than a western country moving towards liberty.
Plus he told the Jews they shouldn't resist Hitler which was an evil thing to say IMO.

While it sounds high-minded (and smug) to say "war is good for nothing" or "violence is never the answer", war and violence is indeed good for something if one's motivation is to protect lives and preserve liberty.

The Ghandi's and the Chamberlain's of the world wil not do it through pacifism.
If they didn't have courageous folks willing to protect them they would simply be executed because you can't negotiate with someone who is intent on converting you to their ideology or religion or killing you if you don't.
Or simply killing you outright.

Sorry about the rant. I was surprised Cooper took that role which was essentially the anti-Sargeant York, who, ironically, was initially a pacifist before he read about our Founding Fathers and talked to his Preacher.

However, in the end he did do the right thing in High Noon.
I just couldn't buy that he was that afraid through most of the movie (probably because I saw Sgt York first).

I loved Connery's performance (as well as the supporting actors) in Outland and concur with all your points.

He shows that anyone can be a hero if they do the right thing and value life and justice, no matter how imperfect they may be.

Talk to any of our heroes or read about them and virtually all are humble but confident and never see themselves as heroes.
They'll also be the first to say they are imperfect. :^)

It's an important message, especially since some people don't know what hero means anymore and will call practically anyone they like; teachers, football players, singers, actors, etc., heroes.

Not that they can't be heroes, just not for doing their jobs or being decent and nice.
There's plenty of other words for that.

I really liked the Doctor Lazarus character, lol.

Another thing I like about Connery is the message that sometimes you don't know for certain you'll do the right thing (especially if it involves a high risk of injury or death) unless you try.

Ed said...

Andrew, That's the scene. I love his space golf course too. I wonder if that's real?

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for the Cap review link.
Jaci Greggs wrote an excellent review! I hope she does more.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben!

Great points about Jesus and pacifism. I think you’re right. There is a difference between “turn the other cheek” and “lay down and don’t defend yourself or anyone else.” Pacifism also ends up promoting dictatorship because it allows bad people to exploit your unwillingness to fight back.

Good point about Gandhi too. His pacifism worked because there was already a strong moral desire on the part of the British to decolonize and he just made it easier because it was easy to hand off to a man like him. If India had been under Nazi or Communist control, they would have just made him disappear.

And as many conservatives have always pointed out, try telling the victims of the concentration camps that war is good for nothing.

As for Cooper taking on the role, my understanding is that Cooper was a strong liberal and he probably saw Foreman as being unjustly accused. BH had an interesting piece the other day on how the communists duped so many in Hollywood and how many of them (e.g. Bogart) found out they had been duped only after they went to Washington to defend their friends who had been “wrongly accused of being communists” -- in DC the liberals saw reams of evidence that the communists weren’t wrongly accused.

I like High Noon because I like the fact Cooper does the right thing even though everyone tells him otherwise. BUT I totally agree about the townsfolk -- disgusting cowards. I would have been very tempted if I were Cooper to walk out right before the bad guys got there, not to save my own rear end but because the townsfolk didn’t deserve protection. Interestingly, I see many of their traits in modern liberals, but that’s for another day perhaps.

AndrewPrice said...

I loved Connery’s performance too. He stands up for modern American values -- everybody is important and everybody needs to stand up and hold out against “the system” to do the right thing.

Great point about real heroes more often than not just doing what they felt they had to do. That’s how I see Connery. He doesn’t see himself as a hero and he doesn’t go around high fiving anyone or snarking off.... he just does his duty when everyone assumes he won’t. I LOVE his motive. I think there is nothing more deeply human than to reach down and decide, “am I better than this?”

So true, so many people no longer know what it means to be a hero. It seems that people now think anyone who doesn’t just kill themselves at the slightest adversity is a hero. That’s just wrong.

Lazarus is awesome. She reminds me of an apolitical Maggie Thatcher and the lines she is given are great.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I have no idea if it was real at the time, but you could easily do that today with modern videogame technology.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, You're welcome. I'm glad they added her to the list of writers. I hope people will comment.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Ben, Did you see the number of comments on my article? 550 right now!! Unbelievable! And they're still adding to it.

Anonymous said...

While the GM is pushing the drugs to the workers, they make it clear that THE COMPANY would go crazy if they found out this was going on.

I was gonna say something but you beat me to it. I had forgotten about this little plot point.

I like this movie a lot though I wouldn't say it's great. It's one of those "If it's on TV, I'll watch it" movies. It's too bad the video quality on the DVD is awful - this one needs a remastering. On the other hand, Film Score Monthly released Jerry Goldsmith's complete score for the film in a remastered 2-disc set. It even includes the rec room synth music.

Peter Hyams has had an interesting career. In the late 70s and early 80s, he was almost (but not quite) up there with Spielberg and Lucas. But he's also directed a lot of crap. I recently watched Sudden Death which he did in the 90s with Jean-Claude van Damme. It's worth it just to see Powers Booth chew the scenery like nobody's business!

A lot of the FX at the end of this film used a process called IntroVision which was a revolutionary new front projection technique. They used the same method in The Fugutive when Harrison Ford jumps from the bus as the train hits it. I'm not even sure this company exists anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I thought that was an interesting point that the company was not behind this. This was still the day before bad people rose to the top and filled their corporations with like-minded henchmen! ;-)

I love the rec room music. I think it's brilliant. It sounds like a futuristic extension of modern music and I could totally see people listening to that in 50 years.

I heard the soundtrack is largely atonal, but I haven't actually heard the soundtrack so I can't verify that.

Hyams is an interesting guy. He had some serious hits and films that have definite staying power -- 2010, The Presidio, Outland, Capricorn One, Timecop, The Star Chamber, but none of his films ever "felt" great. I think the reason is his philosophy. Everything I've read about him says he believes in just getting the information on the screen in as efficient a means as possible and he disdains "artsy" techniques. So that probably hinder his stuff because it all feels very generic.

BTW, I'm not saying this a "GREAT FILM", I'm just saying I thought it was an excellent film and I enjoyed it a lot.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I'm not saying this a "GREAT FILM", I'm just saying I thought it was an excellent film and I enjoyed it a lot.

I know. I didn't misunderstand you.

The FSM page I linked to has samples of the score. I suppose atonal is a good word for it. It really excels at creating a creepy atmosphere for the film: Goldsmith in Alien mode.

Speaking of film scores, another niche label, Intrada, recently announced a deal/partnership with Disney. Many are speculating that John Barry's complete score for The Black Hole might see the light of day sooner rather than later. But it's just speculation. I've been keeping an eye out for you this whole time. :-)

What's interesting about Hyams is he serves as director of photography for most of his films (not this one) and one of his trademarks is this "natural light" look which sometimes makes things look too dark. (You'd know it if you saw it.)

Hyams also collaborated with James Cameron in the 90s on a killer asteroid script titled Bright Angel Falling. I read a draft when I was laid up in bed at NASA - not a bad script but still just a first draft. LOTS of tech details. In the wake of Deep Impact and Armageddon, this script was put on the shelf.

Joel Farnham said...


This is the first time I have seen a side by side comparison of Outland and High Noon. It explains much what is wrong with High Noon. I never could finish the movie. I know it ends with the Sheriff killing the bad guys.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Cool, thanks! I would love to get my hands on that soundtrack, even if I have to pay for it rather than "borrow" it.

I read that he likes the natural light thing -- and has been criticized for it. I have no particular objection to it though it doesn't really come across as natural on screen -- it's too dark. And it makes his films feel dated. So yeah, I guess I do have issues with it.

This film has a lot of connections to Alien. They even used a tag line "In space, your greatest enemy is still man."

I didn't know that about the script with Cameron, but the world definitely does not need another asteroid film.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think it's funny that conservatives instinctively have a problem with High Noon. Even without knowing what Foreman was up to, it comes across that something is wrong with the film. It's no wonder John Wayne and Howard Hawkes got so upset about it.

Regarding Outland, I think it is an interesting comparison and really shows how the same story can be done so differently with only minor changes.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to "borrowing" music, my objections are, shall we say, fluidic. :-)

But I've said it before - these niche labels need all the support they can get.

Film Score Monthly, La-La Land, Intrada, Kritzerland... you should treat yourself to some of their wares this Christmas. I'm treating myself to this next Tuesday. ;-)

I wouldn't describe Hyams' style as "dated" but now that you mention it, I find myself in agreement. Our lighting teacher at film school used a scene from The Presidio as an example of what NOT to do but I can't remember which scene it was.

Koshcat said...

Awesome. I always liked this film as a guilty pleasure. But now I can hold my head up high and say to detractors that it is an anti-commie piece.

AndrewPrice said...

Fluidic is a good way to put it. I would never want to cheat a small, independent film. But anybody who is suing people. . . different story.

I like Hyam's films, but they definitely feel dated to me -- early 80s -- and it's all because of the visuals, not the costumes, music or even story telling style.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshkat, I'm glad I could help! :-)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Jumpin' Jehosaphat Andrew!

That's impressive! It's the stuff dreams are made of! Let's face it, you're a celebrity now. Can I have an autographed post? :^)

I gotta say I'm also impressed at the number of comments you make.
Seriously, I know most folks really appreciate that and I also know that takes considerable time.

It is rewarding, however if you have enough time to do it. Even a few comments usually keep that spark and connection going and commenters respond more when that happens.

I would add they are as interesting as the post since, essentially, it's like discovering extra footage of a film you like or an extra chapter to an engrossing book or longer versions of a cool song.

It's like we're all in a diner having this fascinating discussion in a sense.
Educational, often enlightening and fun!

Now we need to get LawHawk and Bev over at the Bigs and take them over. It'll be like here except a lot bigger!
Nothing can stop us now! Bwa ha ha ha ha! Ha! Ha!

Then we'll start Big Navy, since Andrew* is dragging his feet.

* The other Andrew. The one that's not as famous. LOL!

Congratulations Andrew! People notice quality and depth when they see it. Well, most people. Or a substantial amount. Actually, I'm not sure how many people but it's a plethora El Guapo.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, Yes, a plethora!


I agree about responding to comments. For one thing, it seems kind of rude not to -- especially when people are asking direct questions. For another, it is a great way to explain the things that might not have been clear. Also, it's a great way to build rapport with the audience -- it does feel a lot like being in a diner and everyone sitting around talking about these issues. I love that. I wouldn't want to do it if I just threw out an article out there and then walked away... what would be the point?

I honestly can't understand the number of bloggers who just don't respond to comments? Why even bother in the first place?

The only problem I'm finding is that it really does become overwhelming trying to respond to so many people. I do my best and I definitely read all the comments, but it's just impossible to respond to everything -- especially since I'm also trying to post here and do my day job at the same time.

I agree with you, by the way, about the comments often being like extra footage. I think they're all part of the conversation and should be treated as such.

What I also found so gratifying in the response to my two posts so far has been the total thoughtfulness of the comments. These aren't just "yeah, no, the guy is a jerk/great" type comments. People genuinely thought about their answers, explained them, and then engaged other people with regard to their answers. It felt great to see that because I think it shows that everyone had a good time and got something out of it.

That's my primary objection to articles about things like George Lopez. After the first couple comments, there isn't much more to say and there's very little to really discuss. I'd rather talk about things that open minds and help people see movies from different angles. I see my goal as (1) giving people a better appreciation for films and (2) opening some minds about better ways to do things. Hopefully, some conservative writers/film makers are listening.

Yeah, I see no movement on the Big Navy front! LOL!

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