Ready for ‘Player One’: Dystopian space western ‘Outland’ remains fascinating

In anticipation for the release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One this Thursday (March 29), we’ll be taking a look back at various inspirations for the film’s author, writer Ernest Cline, and also seeking out other ’80s-related delights for your entertainment.

Given the sociopolitical turmoil of the 1980s, it’s unsurprising that the era lent itself well to the refinement of dystopian cinema. It’s something that Ready Player One attempts to evoke at nearly every turn — the trailer park “stacks” in which Wade Watts grows up in, the omnipresence of an evil corporation, IOI, that is attempting to regulate the marketplace of ideas through blunt force trauma — and it would be remiss of me in a series about the film’s thematic influences to not include a film from this subgenre from this era.

The obvious choice here is Ridley Scott’s Alien (even though it was released in 1979) a masterpiece that is still strikingly effective to this day and to which much of filmmaking in general owes a great debt to, and which is shouted out in the film during a decently funny scene. However, I’ve decided to go with Peter Hyams’ Outland, given that it released in 1981 and is generally passed over in favor of other, perhaps more attractive, directly satirical dystopias like the ones featured in later films like Brazil or Robocop. It’s a Sean Connery-starring, western-influenced actioner set in a corporate titanium mine on one of Jupiter’s moons, and I’m kind of in love with it.

Outland, for sure, is a bit of a odd duck. In an isolated mining colony on Io (which the film helpfully points out is pronounced “Eye-Oh”), Federal Marshal William O’Niel (Connery) arrives with his family to take over policing duties after the colony has been wracked with a number of bizarre and unexplained suicides. Each of the employees of this giant and totally faceless corporation is on a year-long contract, and they’re worked to the bone by their bosses. But it’s odd that miners have been puncturing their pressure suits, or have gone down to the mines without any protection whatsoever, and O’Niel begins to suspect that something funny is going on. With the help of a rogue-ish company doctor named Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), he works his way to the center of a drug-related conspiracy involving some sketchy hoods and a corrupt boss, and puts his life in danger in the process, as the suppliers of these chemicals send a pair of assassins to put the Marshal away for good. He becomes totally isolated: His wife is fed up and leaves him to take their son to Earth, which the kid has never seen, and, fearing for their lives, the miners won’t interact with him. So O’Niel has to be his own savior, and bring justice to the unruly frontier.

Hyams isn’t as strong of a visual stylist as Scott, but he offers a compelling alternative to the Alien director’s vision by stacking the frame with people. Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, who were dwarfed by the massive size of their vessel, on Io there are miners crammed into every nook and cranny, competing for space in tiny dining halls and cubicle quarters (realized with massive sets full of grime and extras). This is one of the reasons why everyone shrugs off O’Niel’s initial skepticism about the “suicides” — who in the hell would ever want to live like this unless they had to? They’re given unrealistic goals by their company and by the bossman, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), who asks O’Niel to forgive bad behavior during their off-hours given how hard they work during the day, and who, behind that facade, is ultimately the person supplying the amphetamine that’s driving people mad in order to get them to work harder.

Sheppard has his own large office, but longs for more, as he’s reserved one wall of his workspace for projecting a golf video game and wants those open spaces reserved only for the wealthy in this horrible new world. Boyle’s very matter-of-fact in his performance, playing up the charismatic aspects of his character — he gets results and cares about his men! — even while ordering assassins from his drug supplier so that they can murder the pesky marshal who might bring down the whole enterprise. He successfully isolates O’Niel as well, as he knows that no one will risk their lives or, more importantly, their paychecks, to help a lawman.

Connery does a solid job at conveying how closed off he is from the community at large: Like the miners, he’s there strictly to do what he’s being paid to do (much like everybody else there), even if it separates him from his family and alienates him from his co-workers. He’s the law, a figure who commands the rapt attention of the men and women in a busy bar when he enters for a quick pint. It’s only when the threats start making their way inwards, when his only true friend in his department is garroted after helping him bust a drug dealer, that he commits to seeing his investigation through to the end. It’s a lonely and angsty movie, and that sense of stress and anxiety, along with the structure of the film’s third act, connects Outland to Fred Zinnemann’s classic High Noon, with Connery taking on the Gary Cooper role.

If you’ve ever heard anything about this film, I’m pretty sure that it’s probably this, and I imagine a lot of people settled in to watch Hyams’ film expecting the same narrative expediency and intelligence that Zinnemann brought to the table, but Outland came to the screen in an era where sci-fi happened to be synonymous with bloat. So, that tension that was so masterfully cultivated back in 1952 isn’t to be found anywhere in the pseudo-remake that hit some 29 years later. But the world of that latter film somewhat makes up for it, and the little considerate touches — zero-g isolation cells for specifically rowdy prisoners, the fact that Dr. Lazarus sleeps in an empty bed in her own ward, and Hyams’ many blunt acknowledgements of the pain and pleasures frontier life — go a long way.

It’s not totally a surprise that Outland didn’t get to the top of the charts when it hit, but it didn’t seem to adversely effect anyone’s careers. Hyams still worked, though he wouldn’t really reach the same heights again, though he would go on to, in the minds of many a film nerd, desecrate a masterpiece with his sequel to 2001, 2010, and then finish out the decade making sci-fi movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme. But much like a lot of box office misfires in the early ’80s (and I really wouldn’t call it a flop; an esoteric Alien-influenced space western was never going to do well, and the fact that it made most of its budget back feels like a big success), Outland found a longer life thanks to pay cable channels like HBO, who back in the days before original programming, you stupid millennials, showed movies every second of every day and had a very limited library of titles.

It wasn’t saved from obscurity like some of the films on the Z Channel, the Los Angeles-only network responsible for the redemption of titles like Heaven’s Gate, but it did ensure that it wouldn’t totally be lost in the collective unconsciousness and would maintain a steady cult following over the years. And I think it’s worth seeking out if you’re at all interested in interesting dystopian landscapes of the ’80s, and have exhausted the premiere examples from that era: Scott and Gilliam’s masterpieces, the Roger Deakins-photographed 1984 adaptation. It’s certainly a vision of the future in line with Spielberg’s visions of a corporate-dominated future full of an enslaved underclass, and Outland remains an interesting work.

Featured image via MoviestillsDB.