21 November 2016

FWS Forgotten Classics: OUTLAND (1981)


Since the founding of FWS back in 2010, people have reached out to me to discuss this film, despite it not falling within the core mission of FWS. However, Outland is one of my favorite "forgotten" sci-fi films of the 1980's and I never need much of an excuse to discuss films. Back in 1989, I would see this film along with ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, and ALIENS. The primary reason behind my brother and I renting this sci-fi film one fateful summer afternoon was partly due to a company called the Intergalactic Trading Company. Back in the 1980's, prior to the internet, companies gave away free catalogs in the back of magazines targeted to a certain audience, and the ITC appeared in the back of the old Starlog magazine. I ordered one around the time that the Galoob ST:TNG toyline was coming out, and in the many pages of the catalog were all of these products for sci-fi TV shows and movies I'd never seen. I would use this old catalog as a list to explore new sci-fi. One of the pages devoted to sci-fi patches and a number were from some movie called Outland, and the next time my mother took us to Aardvark Video in Bartlesville, we rented this forgotten classic, which was forgotten even then. Outland became a favorite of mine, and it is my hope that you seek it out after this article.

What is Outland?
Director Peter Hyams was best known for the government space cover-up film Capricorn One when he desired greatly to write and direct a western. However, he was given advice to avoid the Western genre due to a downturn in popularity of Western movies and that he should direct a sci-fi film instead. With that set burning desire,  he took the bones and guts of 1952’s High Noon and set it on a mining station on the Jovian moon of Io with Sir Sean Connery taking the place of Gary Cooper. The setting is the Conglomerates Amalgamated number 27 mine that pulls titanium out of the violent inner moon of Jupiter: Io.  
Over 2,000 miners, company employees, contractors, and even a team of Federal law enforcement officers call the bleak metal world of Con-Am 27 home. Just arriving at the station is Federal Marshall William O’Neil is assigned to a tour on Con-Am 27 after stirring up trouble on his last assignment. He brings along his wife and son, who has never seen Earth. The barely civilize conditions of Con-Am 27 deeply trouble O’Neil’s wife. Soon after the film starts, she leaves and takes her son to wait for William on the massive Jupiter transfer station. In a video message, she tells him of her love and how their son needs a chance to see the Earth.  Alone and facing a mystery of dead miners, O’Neil begins to dig and he finds a rotten core at the heart of Con-Am 27. Then the adventure really begins... 

The Historical Context of Outland
Prior to the emergence of Star Wars in 1977, science fiction cinema was mostly confined to B grade films (if you were lucky) aimed at weirdos and teenagers. There were only a handful of serious films set within the sci-fi genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, the Day the Earth Stood Still, and Forbidden Planet. Once Star Wars stormed into theaters, the sci-fi that used to exist was to be never more.  In the land rush that followed to cash in on the sci-fi fever, films were greenlit that would have never been prior to 1977. One of these was ALIEN over at 20th Century Fox and its overall design and mood influence the other side of the sci-fi revolution that was darker and more realistic that say the interior of the USS Enterprise.
Films like BLADE RUNNER and of course, Outland were born out of ALIEN. With the set design and director all mirror queues from Ridley Scott. When it comes to Sir Sean Connery being in the film, we have to remember that Sir Connery at the time was attempting to break away from his identity as 007 and that iconic performance.  That seems he endeavored to take on more roles separating him from Bond…that includes Outland and Zardoz. Fortunately, Sir Connery’s other roles became increasingly improved with films like The Hunt for the Red October, Bridge Too Far, Untouchables, and Wind and the Lion. Also at this time, the phenomenon and social behavior of renting films at the local video shop was just starting to take shape, but not in time to grant more attention to underappreciated films, like Outland.

Why was Outland Forgotten?
After Star Wars took the world by storm, the public's appetite for science fiction increased wildly, and businesses of all types attempted to cash in on the hot trend. Films were one of the key areas where there was an explosion in science fiction works. Some of these films that came out of this period were very good and some were really damn cheesy, but there were others that existed that took time for the audience to find them and appreciate...often many years later on VHS rental shelves.
This is the case with BLADE RUNNER and it is also the case with Outland. Many cinema patrons that were laying down their money wanted to see space battles, lasers beams, and cool aliens...not a world-weary federal marshal on a corporate mining station on Io where the apex of the film is not a laser sword duel or a battle between starships, but an Old West style encounter with modern shotguns. It did not help matters that Outland was slow on pacing, realistic in style, and hard-edged in its depiction of life in outer space complete with drugs, depression, and prostitution.
This made Outland a science fiction that shared more in common with thrillers and Westerns like High Noon than Star Wars or Star Trek, and this made the film an outcast, condemning it to barely making back its money and being lost in the sea of sci-fi films that came out in the landrush of studios attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the genre. It did not help that the reviews of the film were very mixed and while the film opened strongly due to it being sci-fi and starring Sean Connery, the word-of-mouth started to slow down ticket sales.

Why is Outland a Classic of Science Fiction?
Within any trend is a number of different works that become classics of the trend, but for different reasons and at different points within the trend's life cycle. Let us consider sci-fi film and television. There is often the prelude or the harbinger of the incoming trend, like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone, the primary example of the trend, which would be Star Wars, the copycats that come shortly after, like Starcrash, then there is the later classic of the trend that goes beyond the original classic work and shifts the trend towards something else, like ALIENS or Star Trek: TNG...then there is the outsiders that take the trend and twists it. This is where BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN, and Outland live and this is often a hard place to exist.  This made Outland something special and unique combined with a great performance from Connery and the rest of the cast. This unique vision by Peter Hyams and product designer Philip Harrison gave Outland a great used world to inhabit and setting it apart that looks and feels more like BLADE RUNNER than a Federation starship.

The Impact and Legacy of Outland

Outland was well received by critics, but it was not a popular film in the theaters of 1981 due to audience's expecting another Star Wars and not a plotting realistic space western that rose to a slow boil. This limited its impact on the wider world of sci-fi cinema. However, it did make its money back with some profit. Most praise gravitated toward the set design, the recycling of the themes from High Noon in an outer space setting, and the performance of the main cast; especially Sir Sean Connery.  To some, Outland ranked up there with BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN for wider impact on the “look” and “feel” of more realistic science fiction cinematic settings. This is due to the fantastic set and production design by Phillip Harrison that acted in concert with Peter Hyams style.
However, the film was lost in the sea of sci-fi film releases, and it was banished to memory and dusty VHS rental shelves by the mid-80's. Back in the pre-internet dark ages, the VHS box counted for a great deal in selling the film to the wandering eye. Outland had two major things going for it: Sir Sean Connery and Peter Hyams. Some would discover this film via word of mouth or by the led actor’s and director’s other credits. Sean Connery was featured in other cult films, like Highlander and fucking Zardoz that allowed renters to see Outland mentioned in Connery’s name…this made some curious enough to track it down.
The same was true for the director Peter Hyams who helm'ed the very solid 2010: The Year We Make Contact and Outland was mentioned on the back of the box, causing (again) people to hunt down the 1981 space western. Of course, the easiest way for people to discover this space western in the sea of VHS tapes at the rental store was by simply scouring the science fiction section of their local video store and see Sir Sean Connery holding a shotgun with Jupiter looming behind. If that doesn't get you to rent it out of curiosity, I don't know what it would take! In the age of the Internet and the phalanx of DVD releases, Outland would get mentioned when its DVD and Blu-ray editions were released. Also helping keeping the fire keep burning was the internet review culture. Given that internet movie critics need unique and forgotten films to review and attract views, films like Outland are discussed on sites like FWS and even in Youtube.com videos like this one. However, Outland remains less well known than most of Sir Sean Connery's post-Bond films along with other 1980's sci-fi films. When it comes to the film's legacy, it is often discussed more on a micro scale than macro given the lack of impact of the film at the time of its 1981 release. The individuals that love or respect this film feel that it resonated the trend of more hard-boiled sci-fi world than presented in Trek/Wars, and that ranks among the best of 1980's sci-fi cinema. Speaking to some of the legacy of Outland, there has been rumors of a remake for years with increased chatter about a remake around 2009 with director Michael Davis. However, nothing has happened since those initial rumors thank the Lords of Kobol...this film needs to remain what it is: a special gem of 1980's sci-fi cinema.

The Heavy Metal 1981/1982 Outland Comic Adaptation 
One method of advertising a film that could expand the audience and growing interest was the comic adaptation. Such classic sci-fi films like DUNE, BLADE RUNNER, and even Star Trek: TMP were adapted for the comic page by some of the biggest comic publishers like Marvel. Outland would receive its comic book adaptation with a serialized presentation in the iconic Heavy Metal magazine. From July to October 1981 then completed in January of 1982, the story, action, world of Outland was presented in wonderful rich art by Jim Steranko. One of my favorite blogs, PorPor Books presented the comic adaptation here.

The Only Gun of Outland: the Browning 2000 Shotgun
So, why was a 12 gauge shotgun the only weapon seen in Outland? The director has been quoted that since the film was based off of High Noon, that laser guns would be out of place. Fans have also conjured up some in-universe explanations. Shotguns would be effective in space warfare by shredding the space suit of their opponent. In close quarters engagements inside the sealed habitats, special shotgun shell loads would not pierce the walls of the sealed environment...which would have created a real problem! 
Given the time period that the film was made, 1981, it makes sense for a law enforcement officer to carry a shotgun. This before the modern rise of law enforcement officers carrying assault rifles and the shotgun was the official "shit-as-hit-the-fan" weapon of choice. Some have suggested online and to me that the Browning 2000 series shotgun was the inspiration for the original pump single-barreled shotgun from DOOM. While there some basic similarities in design, we know that most of the weaponry in the original DOOM game came from toy guns bought in Austin during the design phase of that classic game. The Space Marine shotgun comes from the Tootsie Toy Dakota cap shotgun, not the Browning 2000 from Outland. Pity that would have made for a great story! 
The shotgun itself is a Browning semi-automatic 2000 series 12 or 20 gauge shotgun that was imported from Belgium (most of the parts were made in Portugal) from 1974 to around 1981 or 1983. About 115,000 were brought to US shores, but it was not a great seller for the company with the A5 model being more popular. Today, the Browning 2000 is relatively unknown and sells for about $200-$500. 
There was only one real steel Browning 2000 purchased for the production and it was saw-off and cut-down for use in the close quarter’s conditions of Con-Am 27 mining station.  During the final showdown between O’Neil and the two highly paid assassins, that one hero prop was worked overtime on double duty since there was just one hero shotgun. The only different between the Marshal's Browning 2000 and the assassins' Browning 2000 was the futuristic scope setup. Other shotguns seen in the hand or on an armor rack were either other shotguns stunt doubles. Interestingly enough, some of the promotion art for the film featuring Sir Sean Connery holding a more traditional pump shotgun, not the Why was the Browning 2000 chosen over other shotguns of the time? The classic sci-fi steel shotgun, the Frenchi SPAS-12, did not arrive on US shores until 1982, and I believe that the production chose the Browning 2000 because it does look different than more traditional shotguns, especially when cut down and saw-off. Outland is the only film to include the Browning 2000 shotgun. 

The LADD Company Connection
At the very beginning of BLADE RUNNER, there is this logo of a tree being assembled line-by-line in a very computerized manner with a rather mesmerizing little musical number playing. In bold red words under the roots of the "computer green" tree is "The LADD Company in associating with Sir Run Run Shaw". This married perfectly with the opening of that iconic 1982 cyberpunk film and it added another dimension to the opening of the film. Outland bears the opening logo without the addition of Sir Run Run Shaw, and it made me smile the first time I watched Outland giving it a connection to my favorite film. The LADD Company film production was founded by American Alan Ladd Jr., former president of 20th Century Fox, and it started strong but slipped into financial ruin with the expensive box office failure of The Right Stuff. I've always rather liked the theme that accompanied the LADD Company logo that is something sepcial and it feels me with nostalgia and wonder that is forever cemented with BLADE RUNNER and those dangerous days of 2019 Los Angeles.
 
Next Time on FWS...
After the first use of atomic weapons in the 2nd World War by the United States, the race has been on by other nations to gain their own weapons of mass destruction. All of this has added up to the world being under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Now with Russia talking and preparing for nuclear war with NATO, it is high time for FWS to discuss atomic, nuclear, neutron, hydrogen weapons of mass destruction. So Duck and Cover for this!


8 comments:

  1. This is great. First time I have ever heard of outland. And it is now on my to watch list.

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    1. You'll certainly enjoy it. It's a film WELL before its time and it's very well acted and filmed.
      Very gritty and real; what I'd expect space to be like? not all shiny and clean like an apple commercial ;)
      It's got old school long shots where you can look into the characters eyes. Very unlike today's movies where they're a series of 1/4second shots stitched together between `splosions.

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  2. Hell, I have not thought of this thing in years, but now you bring it up this is most definitely one which deserves a re-watch. Thank you for the article citing its strengths here, I'm definitely going to be watching it this weekend to check up on these details.

    Also, given your brief praise, I might check out 2010 as well, thank you.

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  3. I'm not entirely sure if I've seen it before, but I'll hold off reading your review until I watch it again.....I'll be back :)

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  4. A solid review William! Been waiting for this forgotten classic piece.
    To tell the truth I never heard about this gem before encounter FWS some 3 years ago so a big thank for FWS again.
    Other Outland adaptions include a novel, photonovel & speed-metal song base on the movie called 'High Moon': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Hy-Qy14qLE
    I would agree with your remark about the possible Outland reboot or remake, although it hurt to think such movie be forgotten, in this age of shiny CGI and hollowed PC story telling a thing like Outland could have never saw the light of day.

    Yoel

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  5. It is a very well made movie, it's one I always recommend to friends looking for something with a little grit and real world aesthetics.

    When I looked up the original trailer on YouTube, it seems they tried a little too hard to cash in on the popularity of Alien which might have gave allot of people the wrong impression about movie.

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  6. A great review. This and 2010 marks the high point of Hymas' work. His other stuff didn't work as well. Don't get me started on the adaptation of 'Relic'.

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  7. Excellent review! I remember reading about this film when I bought a book about fantasy art techniques. There was an awesome image of the lander spacecraft. I went inmediately to rent the movie. It is truly a forgotten classic. And the comic book adaptation is nothing short of awesome. I am very fortunate to have gotten the spanish graphic novel edition in a trip to Argentina. It should be reprinted in english long ago.

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