Outland (1981)

This is going to be a bit of a rant. And a long one, I’ve got plenty of frustration to release. As a concept, I just love the idea of a space western. Especially when teamed up with 80s low grade sci-fi aesthetics, which has that super tangible, gritty feel. It’s like a match made in heaven. But unfortunately instead of a masterpiece, what the movie ends up being is a very forgettable missed opportunity. It’s a bit frustrating how much wasted potential this movie has to offer. I’ve read the Jim Steranko comic adaptation of Outland and frankly, the movie does the comic injustice. The difference is that great. The comic had this really claustrophobic and intense sci-fi mood to it than is beautifully rendered into big double spread splash pages that captures the potential of the story and transfers it to the medium perfectly. That’s why it’s maddening to see the story fail so miserably in its proper original live action form. If someone else with more vision had directed this, it might have actually been great, perhaps even as iconic as say Alien. As it stands now, things just happen, people die horribly, but it for whatever reason the story just never really feels like it properly gets started. It’s not telling a story, it’s just showing a collage of scenes that feel so disconnected from each other that you barely register it tells a coherent story. Even in the last twenty to thirty minutes of the movie that centers around hired assassins playing hide and seek in the space station with Connery it feels like it’s just warming up to get the engines going. It’s a bit bizarre.

I just can’t put my finger around whether it is the writing, directing or casting that is to blame.  Connery (decent, but barely has any material to work with) and the doctor are the only even slightly memorable characters in the movie. The corrupt official behind the drug trade is such a non-entity that he barely even seems to be in the movie, let alone remind you that he’s the big bad guy. He’s such a void of charisma when he should be this menacing presence. Connery’s family (who get written out of the movie five minutes later) leave such a minuscule impression on you that when the movie ends with Connery sending his wife a message that he’ll be joining them on the trip to Earth, it fails entirely to cap off the movie in any meaningful way. Rather, it comes off as an incredibly lazy way to end the movie by trying to go for an emotional catharsis, by promising  a heartfelt reunion, when it really has no business doing that. You never felt Connery was haunted by his family leaving him, nor was he particularly distressed he might not be able to join them when he discovers the plot to kill him, so it comes off so false and disingenuous.

Visually it’s very good looking movie, and I really love all the sets and the very crammed and almost claustrophobic feeling the space station has. It works wonderfully to give the station a sense of life in the few scenes where Connery has to force his way through crowded corridors and it makes for a great setting for the intense chase sequence through the many levels and corridors the station has. Even the scenes set outside of the station in outer space look pretty good considering they’re over thirty years old. The only  hiccup is the way they depict the gravity which makes the fight scene look so damn goofy.

Outland is a very disappointing movie, but under the right hands you could really make something of it. I can’t help but to think this would be a ripe property for a revival where you turned it into a sort of sci-fi western TV show, a bit like Justified meets Battlestar Galactica. Just cut the men working under the Marshall down to a skeleton crew of maybe one or two deputies, to emulate the lone lawman aspect of westerns,  and it could work very well. The movie’s plot could work as a base for the first season and you could develop things further with time.

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