OUTLAND (1981)

Synopsis: In a mining colony on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, a worker suddenly screams that he is covered in spiders. In his panic, he severs his own airline. The sudden drop in pressure reduces him to a bloody pulp. His body plunges into the depths of the mining operation…. The colony's new Federal District Marshall, William O’Niel (Sean Connery), checks the overnight security tapes. His subordinate, Security Sergeant Montone (James B. Sikking), reports that it is not possible to do an autopsy on the dead man, but assures O’Niel that there is no chance of the death being homicide, adding that such "incidents" occur from time to time. Montone also mentions that Transportation got the tickets that Mrs O’Niel requested. O’Niel asks his wife, Carol (Kika Markham), about this, but she is evasive. O’Niel attends an uncomfortable meeting with the colony’s administrators and his own deputies, in which it is made clear to him by Sheppard (Peter Boyle), the colony’s General Manager, that his main duty is not to rock the boat. Afterwards, Montone warns O’Niel not to get in Sheppard’s way. At the airlock, a group of miners look on in horror as one of their number steps into a no-pressure elevator without a suit. They try frantically to save him, but he sets the elevator in motion. It undergoes decompression – and so does he…. O’Niel returns to his quarters to find that Carol has taken their young son and left him. In a recorded farewell, she explains that although she loves him, she cannot stand another posting such as this one, for herself or the boy. O’Niel meets with his deputies, becoming angry at their casual reaction to the recent deaths. He visits the colony’s doctor, Marion Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), demanding a full report on all such "incidents" that have occurred in the past six months. In the rest area, a worker, Sagan (Steven Berkoff), locks himself into a cubicle and injects himself with a red substance…. O’Niel replays Carol’s farewell message. He is interrupted by a call from Montone, who tells him that Sagan has gone berserk, and is threatening to kill a prostitute. O’Niel orders a technician to unlock Sagan's door, at the same time trying to soothe the deranged man. Meanwhile, Montone enters a ventilation duct and approaches the room from behind. The door is opened, but just as O’Niel is about to enter, Montone kills Sagan with a shotgun blast. As Dr Lazarus treats the injured prostitute, she gives O’Niel the report he demanded, telling him that there were twenty-eight "incidents" in the preceding six months, and twenty-four in the six months before that – but only two in the period prior to that. She further tells him that it is Company policy to load bodies onto the colony’s shuttle, and jettison them into space. O’Niel goes looking for Sagan’s body, which he finds packed in the shuttle’s cargo hold. He takes a blood sample from it, which he gives to Lazarus for analysis. Although she warns him that she knows little of such work, Lazarus manages to identify a foreign substance in Sagan’s blood. It is polydichloric euthynol, an amphetamine that in the short term makes human beings capable of doing fourteen hours’ work in six hours – and that in the long term induces psychosis….

Comments: Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’, on this, our weddin’ day…. Oh. Sorry. Got carried away there for a moment. Which tends to happen when bad films insist upon reminding you of good films…. Well, actually, I’m not sure if Outland is strictly an out-and-out bad film – but it is a very silly and disappointing one. Rather than hardcore science fiction, Outland is a thriller set in space (and in "the future", although a date is never specified). That said, it’s not much of a thriller. For most of the film’s running time, writer-director Peter Hyams makes little attempt to build suspense. Rather, the story plays itself out in a puzzlingly matter-of-fact manner. The audience knows early on that drug addiction is causing the spate of deaths on Io. Given that Sheppard, the General Manager, has already bragged loudly about how much productivity has increased since he took over, it isn’t too difficult to figure out who’s supplying the drugs in question. Similarly, when O’Niel starts investigating, everything drops into place with a minimum of fuss. He checks on the criminal records of the colony’s employees, and yup, two of them have a history of drug offences, and yup again, they’re working for Sheppard. Not exactly a difficult investigation. (Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Sheppard to employ people with criminal tendencies, but no record?) The other major problem in the screenplay is the underdeveloped nature of O’Niel, our supposed hero. Ambiguity and shading in a character are fine, but what we have here is downright confusion. In essence, O’Niel is familiar enough: an apparent failure trying to seize one last chance at professional and personal redemption. However, we are given little information about the nature of O’Niel’s failure, and the little we do get is frankly contradictory. We know that he has had "one lousy posting after another", that the Company sends him "from toilet to toilet", that they think he "belongs here". On this point, O’Niel himself is unsure. He takes his stand against Sheppard and his goons primarily to find out for himself whether the Company is right about him. What we don’t know – and never do find out – is how all this came to be. All we ever glean of O’Niel’s background comes from a remark of Sheppard’s – "I read your record – you got a big mouth!" – which would tend to infer that far from being a spineless Company factotum, as is implied for most of the film, O’Niel has fallen out of favour by bucking his superiors. This lack of insight into O’Niel’s character has serious repercussions upon the film as a whole. We don’t understand why he does what he does, and are therefore forced to take his conduct at face value – not a good thing when, to be quite blunt, most of that conduct is headshakingly dumb.

There are two great unanswered questions in Outland. The first is why, with all the evidence he has collected, O’Niel simply doesn’t arrest Sheppard? Sure, it might not have worked; the people in Sheppard’s employ might have intervened, and violently; but then again, rather than risk their own necks, they might not. In any case, O’Niel does nothing of the sort, leaving us with the second question: even if we accept that there is some reason why O’Niel can’t or won’t arrest Sheppard, why does he not inform someone outside of the mining colony of what’s going on? Far from doing so, he doesn’t even gesture vaguely in that direction - not when he first figures out the reason for the string of gruesome deaths, nor when he obtains concrete evidence of his suspicion, nor when his deputy and his prisoner are both gruesomely murdered, nor even when he discovers that he himself is in imminent danger of his life! O’Niel’s manner of conducting his investigation makes even less sense. At one moment, he’s plunging his hand into a deep fryer in order to retrieve a package of drugs, and thus prove his case; the next moment, instead of hiding the cache of drugs that he’s managed to intercept, he’s flushing it down the toilet! (Or at least, so he says; we could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s lying, but we’re given no reason to do so). Later on, O’Niel puts a tap on Sheppard’s communications, and by this method learns of the fate in store for himself; but having obtained this recorded evidence, does he do anything with it? Send it to his superiors? To the administration of the Company? To a news agency on Earth? To anyone? He does not. Then we have his interaction with Sheppard. O’Niel’s reaction to his discovery of the reason for the deaths on Io is most peculiar. Instead of being outraged at Sheppard’s conduct in a general sense, he seems to take it personally; as if Sheppard did all of it just to get at him. Each time he makes a discovery, O’Niel goes straight to Sheppard, taunting him with his knowledge and with the kink his actions have put in Sheppard’s plans (behaviour that is directly responsible for two more murders being carried out, a fact simply glossed over). Through all of this, the viewer keeps waiting for an explanation; or rather, a revelation: that O’Niel and Sheppard have some kind of history, that they used to be partners, that one of them sold the other out…. But no, nothing. Ultimately, these scenes play out as if O’Niel is trying to goad Sheppard into coming after him – which on one level is a possible explanation. Late in the film, just before the climax, O’Niel speaks bitterly of his life to Dr Lazarus ("They sent me to this pile of shit because they think I belong here"), and of his desperate personal need to discover for himself whether or not his superiors were right about him. In light of this, it is possible to read O’Niel’s behaviour as resulting from a deep-seated need to confront his enemies alone – to stand or fall on his own efforts. But why, then, does O’Niel appeal for help (futilely) to both his deputies and the colony’s other employees? And why, when help finally does offer itself, does he positively leap at it? It just doesn’t make sense….

Mind you, Sheppard’s own behaviour is no more explicable. The backstory of this film, as far as we can interpret it, is that Sheppard, with the collusion of someone connected with the Company, is shipping amphetamines to Io, which are distributed to the workers with the help of two criminal associates. (Actually, the biggest surprise in Outland is that the Company isn’t distributing these drugs to its workers as a matter of course.) When Sheppard learns that O’Niel has intercepted and destroyed an entire shipment of drugs, he decides that the Marshall has to go. However, when Sheppard tells his supplier who it is that is to be killed, the reaction is a startled, "Holy shit!" and a stern warning that if anything goes wrong, Sheppard himself will be the next one eliminated. From this we can infer that despite appearances to the contrary, the killing of a Federal Marshall will have repercussions with the Company (which makes O’Niel’s conduct still more puzzling). Given this, you’d think that Sheppard would want to take O’Niel out as quietly as possible – and really, it’s very hard to think that considering the convoluted structure of the colony, and its myriad dark corners, Sheppard would have all that much difficulty arranging an "accident"; particularly when, as we learn, he has members of O’Niel’s own team in his pay. But instead of this, Sheppard sends for a pair of hitmen! – and announces to everyone in the colony that they’re coming! How exactly he means to get away with all of this, when nearly two thousand people know what he’s up to (he might be right about them not interfering at the time, but does he honestly think they’ll all keep their mouths shut when their tours are over?), is left to the viewer’s imagination…. By the way, if the plot of Outland is beginning to sound somewhat familiar, there’s a reason. The final third of the film, as has been well documented, is a fairly straightforward re-working of the plot of High Noon – only without any of that film’s depth, tension or moral complexity. High Noon, for those of you who don’t know (and if you don’t – shame on you!!), concerns a sheriff, well-liked and respected within his community, who learns on his wedding day that outlaws whom he once succeeded in jailing are out – and gunning for him. The sheriff turns for help to the community which he has protected – only to have his "friends" rat on him, one by one; while his new wife, a Quaker, threatens to leave him if he does not keep his promise to her, and give up his job and the violence it entails. Written by the soon-to-be blacklisted Carl Foreman, High Noon is a taut and caustic examination of the grey areas between love and duty, heroism and cowardice; and of the yawning chasm that can sometimes lurk between principles in theory and principles in practice. In transferring this story into his own screenplay, Peter Hyams seems to have missed the entire point of the original film. Here, the moral dimension is completely lacking. There’s no reason in the world why O’Niel should expect anyone to come to his assistance (well – maybe one reason; we’ll get into that in a minute). All he has to hope for is that the Company has misjudged the character of someone else in the colony as well as himself – which, as it turns out, they did. Except that by this stage of the film, we pretty much know that already, so where’s the surprise?

And in fact, the plot of Outland seems to me to be too cynical for its own good. What are we to make of its assumption that no-one in the colony will lift a finger to help O’Niel? The implication is that the size of the bonuses they are receiving is enough to keep their mouths shut. (The bonuses are so big, by the way, because of all the extra productivity from the drug-addicted workers.) Yet surely, there must be someone there for whom this simply isn’t good enough? It’s a fair enough inference, perhaps, that individual failures like O’Niel and Lazarus end up taking positions in mining colonies because no-one else wants the job – and because no-one else will have them – but why should all the other workers be tagged as morally lacking, purely on the basis of the work they do? We can understand that the workers are not, perhaps, the cream of the human race; that they have agreed to do hard, dirty work under near-impossible physical conditions in order to get rich quick; but why should that mean that they have no morals at all? (You could argue this the other way, of course: it’s easy enough to picture some of the miners ganging up to fight the hired killers out of pure contrariness.) It is significant that when O’Niel makes his appeal for help, he makes it to the administrative personnel, not to the miners themselves. What he should have done was assemble the workers and let them know exactly what’s going on: that Sheppard is feeding them drugs in order to line his own pockets, and that in doing so, he has caused the bloody, violent deaths of dozens of their fellows. Want to bet that O’Niel wouldn’t have found himself with plenty of assistance then? But of course, if O’Niel had done that, we wouldn’t have had the film’s climactic showdown – which is primarily why the film was made, after all.

For some time, Outland continues to mimic its model. The arrival of the shuttle on which the killers are travelling is counted down by a huge digital clock, which we are given meaningful close-ups of at regular intervals. We also have O’Niel’s appeals to his co-workers, which have the result you’d expect. Once the killers arrive, however, Peter Hyams seems to remember this is supposed to be a science fiction film; and consequently, the setting of Outland begins to dominate the action. Both the film’s climactic scenes and an earlier one, in which O’Niel pursues one of Sheppard’s underlings through the metal rabbit warren of the colony’s living quarters, seem structured principally to show off the film’s sets. This is not a bad thing. The production design of Outland is one of its main virtues. This was one of the first films to extrapolate from Alien’s grungy, lived-in, industrial look; and the mining colony on Io is a huge, grim, ugly wasteland of scaffolding and dark corridors and claustrophobic spaces. (And since this is a Peter Hyams film, yes, we do spend quite a lot of time wandering around in the dark. Fortunately, however, in this case Hyams did not act as his own cinematographer, so occasionally – just occasionally - someone turns a light on….) On the downside, Outland suffers from something that has since become endemic in science fiction films: logic and character are continually sacrificed to images and actions that "look cool". In the end, although they struggle valiantly, the film’s cast simply cannot overcome the gaping holes in the screenplay. Peter Boyle is a bit of a disappointment as Sheppard, being far too generically "evil" to really convince. (He and Sean Connery also deliver one of the most ludicrously anticlimactic "showdowns" between Good Guy and Bad Guy ever committed to film.) Much better is the performance of James B. Sikking as Montone, O’Niel’s morally ambiguous subordinate, who "doesn’t do anything wrong", just "doesn’t do anything right". As for Sean Connery himself, you get the feeling that he was cast purely as an actor who can carry a doubtful screenplay; that the audience is supposed to go along with what he does without thinking about it too much. (Sorry, Sean!) Connery does what he can as O’Niel (or is that O’Neil? – check out the way his nametag switches from scene to scene!), but he’s simply not given sufficient material to work with. However, the highlight of Outland is unquestionably the performance of Frances Sternhagen as Marion Lazarus, a self-proclaimed "wreck" of a doctor employed to "dispense tranquilisers" and to "certify that the Company prostitutes are free of syphilis", but who begins to regain her self-respect – and her courage – through her association with O’Niel. Of course, it helps that Sternhagen is given all of the screenplay’s best lines (one of which may well make an appearance as my e-mail signature in the coming week), such as when, witnessing O’Niel’s angry, frustrated behaviour upon the racquet ball court, she sums up his situation and the film as a whole with the dry observation, "That’s pretty good – playing yourself and losing…." Although Sternhagen’s acerbic performance is very welcome on its own account, so is what it represents. Sternhagen – a not overly attractive, un-made-up, middle-aged woman - is the kind of thoroughly believable character actress that just doesn’t seem to have a place in Hollywood any more. And this is true, in fact, of Outland’s entire cast. With the exception of the O’Niels’ noxious kid (who gets thankfully little screentime), there’s barely a character in this film under the age of thirty. What we have here is a group of hard-living, hard-working, experienced adults – and more power to Peter Hyams and his team for taking this direction. Also praiseworthy is that the film makes no effort at all to graft on some kind of "romance" between O’Niel and Lazarus – although the latter does observe at one point, "Your wife is one crazy lady." (From the little we see of her, it’s hard to feel that O’Niel has suffered any great loss through being "forsaken". Let’s put it this way: Carol O’Niel is no Grace Kelly.) All of this makes for a very welcome scenario, and one that these days, you can’t even begin to imagine making it past the discussion phase of a film’s production.

But of course, neither the faults nor the virtues of Outland discussed so far are really why we’re here – or rather, really why I’m here. The most memorable thing about this film isn’t its cast, or its acting, or its screenplay, or even its production design, but rather the fact that it boasts, if that’s the right word, the most extreme example of jes’ plain wrong cinematic science I’ve guffawed at in some considerable time.

Where to start, where to start?

Well, perhaps with the most forgivable of the film’s errors: its setting. In 1979, the Voyager spacecraft transmitted images of Io that indicated that the moon was the most volcanically active body in the entire solar system. Given the timing of these discoveries, it is hard not to think that Peter Hyams was influenced by contemporary news reports in deciding upon a setting for his space-western. Unfortunately for the director, later space exploration, chiefly the Galileo missions of the late nineties, proved that Io is not merely volcanically active, but volcanically violent, the result of being caught in the middle of an unending cosmic tug-of-war between Europa and Ganymede, two more of Jupiter’s moons, and Jupiter itself; some of Io’s volcanic plumes have reached as far as 300 km into space. And on top of this, there are Io’s unendurable temperatures (an average of –143oC, with the occasional "warm" spot near its volcanoes), and the fact that it lies within a belt of intense radiation. So I don’t think, somehow, that we’ll be seeing any Outland-ish mining colonies on Io any time soon….or even late. Still, I can’t imagine that these discoveries bothered Peter Hyams all that much. Far from being selected as a setting because of its probability, it is easier to envision Io being selected for the sheer visual impact of having Jupiter as a backdrop to the action. I might have criticised this film for being too willing to go along with things simply because they "look cool", but there’s no denying that the outside shots of the colony, with Jupiter hanging massively overhead, are quite stunningly rendered – even though these images were sadly compromised on my pan & scan print. (Shoulda rented the DVD. Dang….)

The film’s other blunders range from the unavoidable to the simply silly to the genuinely maddening. Time has not been kind to Outland. The film’s plot, such as it is, relies heavily upon the surveillance and electronic communication systems at O’Niel’s disposal – systems that, these days, look so woefully primitive that it’s hard not to laugh. Less forgivably, we have the "injury" that O’Niel suffers when he pursues a packet of drugs into a deep fryer. He wears a token bandage on the hand during the next scene or two (yeah, you’d think), but after that it simply disappears – allowing us to see that there’s not a mark on him. The company-issued space helmets are rather interestingly designed, too: they all have a row of small lights lining the inside of the face-plate! Pretty, but hardly practical. (Don’t get what I mean? Try this trick: when you’re driving one night, turn your headlights off, and your internal lights on…. Now you’ve got it!) And then we have the film’s attitude to blood. The scenes leading up to Dr Lazarus’s identification of the polydichloric euthynol are a double whammy of stupidity. First of all, in a purely practical sense, we have to accept that the Company would go to all the trouble of transporting the bodies of its dead workers (whatever the cause of death) into space in order to dispose of them. Why would they bother? Wouldn’t cremation be more sensible? But even if we do accept this – why in the world would Sheppard leave Sagan’s body (which is full of the drug he’s trying to conceal) lying around in the shuttle’s cargo hold? This is dumb enough, but what follows is even worse. O’Niel finds Sagan’s body without too much trouble – and takes a blood sample from it! In the first place, there is no way that you could possibly get a liquid blood sample from a body that had been dead that long; and in the second place, O’Niel takes the sample from Sagan’s throat – which would of course have been empty of blood by that time anyway, due to the effects of lividity. (And in the third place – what the heck did they use for "blood" in this scene? Watered down raspberry cordial? Yeesh!) Not content with this, Outland gives us one more intensely stupid moment when the drug pusher captured by O’Niel is murdered in his prison cell. Actually, these "cells" are one of the film’s better ideas: zero gravity chambers in which the prisoners simply float (and, presumably, think about what they’ve done). O’Niel comes in to question his prisoner, only to find that someone’s been there before him: that the man is a bloody mess, that his airline has been severed – and that the blood oozing from the tube is – dripping UP.

Uh – negative gravity!? Oh, well. It looks cool, so what the heck?

Another major idiocy comes in the behaviour of the hitmen hired by Sheppard. Putting aside the question of whether the pump-action shotgun will really be the weapon of choice – of the FUTURE – you really do have to wonder how the guys we see here got to be "the best" in their profession, as Sheppard is assured they are. Even if we're willing to overlook the irritating movie convention that insists that Bad Guys cannot hit Good Guys, no matter how much heavy artillery they’re carrying, or how many clear shots they have, how is one supposed to react to a professional killer, used to working in space, who allows himself to be suckered into firing at a shadowy "movement" which he mistakes for his victim, and who thus shoots out the windows of the room he’s in and gets fatally sucked out into a vacuum? Well – perhaps the same way that we’re supposed to react to the discovery that in space stations – of the FUTURE – the windows will be made of ordinary glass….

And then there’s the big one.

If Outland is known for anything these days, it’s probably for the gruesome scenes of explosive decompression that occur towards the beginning of the film. The two workers who go berserk, and expose themselves to zero pressure, swell up like rotten pumpkins, then redecorate their surroundings with their inner workings. (This is presumably how O’Niel’s prisoner dies, too, but we only see the aftermath.) Just one problem – it is generally accepted, and has been for some time, that exposure of the human body to zero pressure would have no such effect. First of all – and I really do hate to break this to everybody – the "explosive" part of "explosive decompression" refers to the rate of change of pressure (and possibly the accompanying noise), not to its effects on the body. The gases in your body would certainly expand under zero pressure, and the fluids would probably vapourise, but this would not necessarily be fatal. The single most important thing is NOT to hold your breath: the expansion of the gas in your lungs would certainly cause them to rupture. Otherwise, the biggest and most immediate threat is loss of oxygen to the brain. It is estimated that if decompressed, you would have approximately fifteen useful seconds to help yourself. After that, you would certainly lose consciousness – and if not recompressed within about ninety seconds, you would die; not by exploding, but because of pulmonary-respiratory failure; or, more likely still, plain old asphyxia.

Those of you who know your science fiction films might be saying to yourselves, "Ah, so 2001 was right!" Yes, it was – because most of what I've told you was known before that film was made. Or to put it another way, about fifteen years before Outland was made…. And much as it pains me to say anything nice about Event Horizon, they were reasonably accurate there, too. But Outland got it entirely wrong – and then didn’t even have the grace to be consistent. During the film’s final scenes, O’Niel fights for his life outside the colony. As he and his adversary, both wearing pressure suits, struggle desperately, you can see quite clearly that O’Niel’s sleeve is pulled out of his glove, exposing his arm to the atmosphere. Given what we’ve seen so far, this should have been enough to send O’Niel into his imitation of an overripe tomato – but instead, so intent were the film-makers upon playing the Hero’s Death Battle Exemption card, they got it more or less right by accident: nothing happens. This pretty much sums up Outland: sloppily written, still more sloppily executed, and in the end, just plain infuriating.

But, hey! – it looks cool, right?