Hey everybody! Sorry for the tardiness of this post, I got my wires crossed by the long weekend. Not a great excuse, and I apologize, but hopefully it gave you even more of an opportunity to work in a viewing of Outland. This week's Sci-Fi Squad movie club took us to the Io moon of Jupiter for Peter Hyam's space western that garners more than a few comparisons to High Noon. Sean Connery stars as a lawman whose jurisdiction is a mining facility experiencing a series of bizarre deaths. So you watched it, jump past the bump and let's wax all intellectual like about Outland.
Let's start of simple here. What did you think of the film overall? Were you surprised to see Peter Boyle in a non-comedy? What did you think of Connery's performance? His character? Did you think the film was well shot? I know these all sound like elementary questions but I find they are the first things we reference when explaining to our friends why we like a given film and yet we so often glaze over these aspects in a discussion panel because we find them to be too rudimentary. I say nertz to that, let's toss our thoughts out there!
The Space Western
This film has been touted as a space western thanks largely to its connection to High Noon; one of the greatest westerns of all time. Of course, the fact that Connery is an old school marshal with quiet resolve who is also handy with a shotgun don't hurt none either. While not the most overt example of a space western I've ever seen, and I'll expound upon that in a moment, the idea of space western got me thinking about why that genre exists in the first place. There are a host of examples from Joss Whedon's celebrated Firefly to Moon Zero Two to Cowboy Bebop. I think the reason these two genres find comfortable kinship has to do with the American spirit at the heart of the western.
The western was a genre born in America because of our historical obsession with manifest destiny. Basically America expanded and grew as a young nation because scores of people were empowered by the idea that they had to move west. This transcended any superficial desire for monetary opportunities and spoke to a deeper desire to explore the unknown. These were pioneers who looked at unexplored territory as the ultimate challenge and their explorations founded our nation. Sci-Fi movies involving space exploration, in many ways, are a more international extension of manifest destiny. In other words, that's the reason why space westerns from Japan (Cowboy Bebop) or England (Moon Zero Two) blend the two genres just as well as Outland or America's Battle Beyond the Stars. Am I crazy? Did you see Connery as the archetypal western hero despite the fact that he is desperately Scottish?
The Whole High Noon Thing
So yes, a heap has been made over the similarities between Outland and High Noon. While I totally understand and agree with this parallel as far as the end of the film is concerned, I think it does more harm to the film than it does present an enticement to see it. The climax of the film isn't just a homage to High Noon, but a straight-up theft of its plot; no argument here. But that's where the similarities end, and I think if you go into expecting a cut/paste classical style western on the moon of Jupiter, you would be disappointed. That being said, I think the film is much stronger with its divergence from High Noon than it could ever be as an exact remake.
I love High Noon, it's one of my all-time favorite films. The film features Gary Cooper (the wise, weathered sentry of western cinema) as a lawman who puts away a vicious criminal and sets about retiring his badge. On his wedding day, the last day he is sheriff, he discovers that the outlaw he sent away has been released and will be arriving on the noon train to settle the score. One by one, all the townsfolk, so enamored of him before this turn of events, begin to distance themselves from him out of fear. Aside from some strong allusions to McCarthyism, this is the entire construct of the film. Outland's finale finds Sean Connery awaiting the arrival of three hired guns on the evening shuttle whom he knows full well are coming to silence him for good, so the connection is valid.
But Outland is so much more than that. I actually find it more apt to categorize Outland as a crime drama in space which, to me, is almost more interesting if only because it is more rare. The film follows Sean as he works to solve the mystery of why so many miners are suddenly finding it pertinent to off themselves in fantastically nasty ways. That leads to the discovery of a corruption ring within the police department and drug trafficking to the mining colony. For me, the most fascinating parts of the film were watching him put all the clues together and interacting with his one faithful, if sassy, accomplice: Dr. Lazarus. Did you see this more as a western in space or a cop drama in space? Incidentally, what did you guys think of Dr. Lazarus? Did you find her annoying or did you think her sharp tongue was the perfect counterbalance to Connery's natural swagger?
Also, though Gary Cooper really only deals with the themes of honor and black-and-white constructs of right and wrong, Connery's character has so much more on his plate. The principal building block to his character's psyche has to be his relationship with his wife and son. At first, you see them as a happy, if somewhat disconnected, family unit. But when that scene hits wherein she sends him the transmission to tell him they are leaving, it's heart-breaking. You know she still loves him but can't take living in space any longer. It's interesting to pause while pondering the thrill and excitement of space exploration and think about what actually living in space would do to someone who had only ever before lived on Earth...or for that matter to someone who had never had the chance to set foot on Earth. It's tantamount to the worst kind of homesickness and I wonder if we would find ourselves pining for the familiar Terra beneath our feet after a while. Thoughts?
From the moment Connery learns of the hitmen coming to kill him, the movie gets very juicy. This is what is known, typically figuratively, in film as a ticking clock. Outland takes the concept a step further by superimposing the digital countdown to the shuttle's arrival on the screen as Connery tries to rally support among his officers; finding only cowardice and disloyalty. There is a really great exchange between he and Dr. Lazarus wherein he lays out his reasoning for resisting the corrupt system that I really love. And I'll be damned if Connery doesn't channel Cooper when he walks into the officer's lounge and says, "I could use a little help," and then after their meek silence, "I thought so." The initial fighting through the corridors of the ship actually remind me of Alien; except of course the monster in the dark is Sean Connery. Then when it spills over into the outer regions of the mine, it is both intense and supremely entertaining. I also like how the final battle highlights the excellent production design of the film. What did you guys think? Did you think the climax was worth the buildup? Did you, like me, appreciate the lack of lasers in this space battle? Do you think this decision was designed to again hearken back to High Noon?
Alright, I've rambled enough. Final thoughts? Other suggestions for me if I really, really like this film...which I do? Other Peter Hyams films you enjoy? On Sci-Fi Squad, everyone can hear you comment.