Friday, May 22, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Outland (1981)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

The near future. Federal Marshall O’Niel (Sean Connery in one of his neutral state performances where he’s neither applying himself particularly nor looking too bored) has just assumed his new position as the highest ranking law enforcement officer on a mining station on Jupiter’s moon Io, a position you don’t get because you’re exactly a high-flying star of your organization. In fact, O’Niel’s wife (Kika Markham) has gotten so sick of a series of jobs in horrible places and the effect that’ll have on the development of their son, she leaves O’Niel just two weeks after they have arrived, son in tow (which, given the horrible performance the poor child actor gives, is an excellent idea as far as this viewer’s nerves are concerned).

O’Niel stumbles upon the curiously high amount of suicides and self-created accidents on the station. After a bit of an investigation, O’Niel finds out the miners are supplied with a drug that increases their performance before slowly driving them mad, and it’s all done with more than just the approval of local mining corp head Sheppard (Peter Boyle). Everybody around is either looking away from the problem because they are paid off, or just because they don’t want to rock the boat and lose the tiny bit of the economic cake they can get. O’Niel, right in the middle of his own private existential crisis, realizes he won’t let himself be bought, or ignore what’s going on, whatever the consequences may be. Not surprisingly, there’s violence in the air.

I have always been rather fond of Peter Hyams’s Science Fiction variation on High Noon, and my recent re-watch only confirmed to me this is one of the seriously underrated genre films of its time. Not that there aren’t dubious scientific moments: at least people who understand physics much better than I do tell me that the film’s fixation on people exploding when coming into contact with the vacuum of space is entirely misguided, though it does make for some nice effects, and I don’t even want to think about how much else the film probably gets wrong about the potentials and hazards of space mining operations, the working of solar panels, and so on, and so forth. Fortunately, I’m too dumb to notice anyway.

On the other hand, Outland’s scientific accuracy doesn’t really matter much, because it gets the – in a work of fiction – much more important aspect of making the mining station feel believable right. The station feels like a real, and appropriately shabby, place a future working class might have to inhabit, with basically the same hardships, the same ugliness, and the same injustice as today, just with smaller cots, more artificial light and even less chances for a better life. The way the film, in its production design and its unspoken assumptions, tells it, there’s nothing glamorous about the work in space, only danger, mediocre pay, and a company who only cares for its earnings, space having become the place where dreams die and careers end instead of the place of hope and romance it once was (if only in our shared dreams). All this, the film never so much explains outright but suggests through the details of its production design, the only mildly bitter cynicism of its doctor character as played by Frances Sternhagen, and the way nobody ever quite meets anybody else’s eyes. Unlike in High Noon, even O’Niel’s attempt to ask the miners for help has something perfunctory about it, Connery’s posture carrying the knowledge he won’t get anything from these people before he even has to open his mouth. Pointedly, the film doesn’t even seem to judge the miners for not getting on O’Niel’s side, realizing that a cowed working class like that might just see the pointlessness in O’Niel’s struggle.

Because, sure, O’Niel gets his personal happy end – this is a movie after all – but there’s really no second here on screen that argues he has made much of an impact on how things are as a whole; he’s only ever been fighting a symptom of diseases it needs more than a gun and a badge to end. And he can flee to greener pastures now anyway, it seems (though the film pointedly avoids the economics of that decision).

Hyams, always at least a dependable director when it comes to action and suspense, and often a rather brilliant and unsung one, does tell this tale in a straightforward style, with some expectedly fine suspense scenes (the hostage sequence and the grand finale being the obvious examples). Hyams has found a way of turning the station into a real place by making use of great, grimy, production design (this was made at the moment when The Future in cinema became full of lived-in places populated by lived out people, after all), and some very impactful lighting decisions that sometimes even suggest a working knowledge of Bava to my eyes. Which, all in all, is quite a lot for a film whose high concept sell was probably “High Noon in Space, and get me that Connery guy!”.

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