George Lucas’ Star Wars in 1977 led to a boom of hasty space opera knock-offs, but there had always been a dogged underclass of “hard” sci-fi films scraping around the edges of the wide and forgiving genre. Like Ridley Scott’s Alien, Peter Hyams’ 1981 feature Outland, a “High Noon in space” high concept, was relentlessly design-driven – hard scrabbling, blue-collar miners in space. The premise is simple. Writer/director Hyams posits a hard science fiction environment of remote titanium ore mining outposts dotted throughout our solar system. In one such roughneck mining town, based upon Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, new and uncompromising Marshall William O’Niel (Sean Connery) uncovers an illegal supply of performance-enhancing drugs distributed by the colony chief and Corporation stooge, Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle). The drugs allow the miners to work beyond their limits, breaking mining records and securing bonuses. An unfortunate side effect of repeated use can be psychotic episodes and burnout – O’Niel’s tour of duty coincides with a spike in suspicious deaths, written off as accidents by the greedy bosses and their overseers. Unprepared to look the other way, O’Niel finds himself dangerously isolated, with hired killers due on the next shuttle to silence him. Only the cynical chief medic Doctor Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) steps up to help him. The main thing that stands out about Outland and enhances the suspenseful ticking clock drama is the hellishly realized, grubby, grungy, industrial setting: a superb combination of the work of production designer Philip Harrison, model makers Martin Bower and Bill Pearson, and costume designer John Mollo (not long off Star Wars and Alien duty).
However, “the mining colony is the location, not the subject,” asserted Hyams in the film’s press release. “The film is about a man who has reached a point in his life where he draws the line, where he sees a wrong and feels a responsibility to stand up to it.” He saw it as akin to an Alaskan pipeline outpost, an oil rig, or a rough and tumble Western mining town. “These are places which attract people with suspect pasts, who have little to lose and are out for as much gain as possible in the shortest amount of time. For that, they are willing to undergo a life of tremendous hardship, physically and mentally. Creature comforts barely exist on a place like Con-Am #27 (the name of the mining post in the film). Things don’t work particularly well. The heat is oppressive to the point of being unbearable. It’s filthy. It’s claustrophobic. And there are only three things to do: work as hard as you can, pass the time by sleeping, drinking or taking drugs, and sex. Liaisons there are probably as perfunctory as possible. I see it as a place of enormous boredom and physical danger. It’s mean. And it’s nasty.” Breach a spacesuit on a gantry outside, the human body can broil up in the sulfur dioxide gas of their harsh mistress’ atmosphere in seconds. The Great Red Spot of Jupiter’s ever swirling storm like the baleful Eye of Sauron bearing down on these foolish trespassers, signed on for a year in its fiery hellscape. “Some cupcake named ‘Cane’ decided that he didn't need an environment suit. They're still sponging him off the elevator walls,” one miner drawls.
Production designer Philip Harrison built a believably grungy, industrial environment. Workers' bunks stretch from floor to ceiling, their occupants crammed into every available inch of space. Above each bunk are two television screens: one for daily updates on shifts, production, and so on, the other for entertainment – probably of an adult nature. The beds themselves are made of thermal foam so they can be hosed down. The locker room reveals a long row of showerheads backing onto a row of grimy basins. Flat fluorescent lighting dominates everywhere. The cramped corridors and busy cafeteria scenes of a tense foot chase between the Marshall and a drug dealer, the camera expertly following and tracking each player through the throng.
John Mollo’s space suits are primarily work outfits that have been issued to the workers by Con-Am. “We decided to aim for a more technological look rather than go for the classical heavy space suits with which audiences have become familiar. At Con-Am #27, the workers wear overalls in primary colors which denote their particular jobs. And they put on helmets and backpacks when they go out into the hostile environment.” Overalls are unisex and baggy, lived-in, just like those of the crew of Alien’s Nostromo. Coffee stains and cigarette ash litter chipped work surfaces.
As conceived by Hyams, working with production designer Philip Harrison, Con-Am #27 is a silver-grey complex which rises from a sulfurous plain, much like an oil rig in the North Sea. Various modules make up the refinery, a solar power station, two greenhouses which produce not only vegetables for the community but also oxygen for the plants, the living quarters and the space shuttle landing pad. The exterior model, with its gantries and modulated surfaces, still looks impressive today against the backdrop of Jupiter. Four miles of fiber optics lit the model. “The idea behind the design,” according to Hyams, “is that the people who built the mining complex weren’t concerned about how it looked but about how it functioned in protecting people from a hostile environment.” The effects crew utilized the then-new Introvision process, a type of front-projection that allowed filmmakers to view a finished composite of live action and plate photography through the camera's viewfinder on set and in real-time. In effect, compositing visual effects in-camera, so Sean Connery, say, could flawlessly walk along the gantry in his spacesuit, interacting with his environment as far as the viewer was aware. The opening scene showcases miners descending in an external elevator before disembarking as the camera pans around to take in the hostile environment, then finally settling on another group of workers, ants against the void. In time, this method fell out of favor as digital compositing came to the fore.
A hard place needs a hard case to keep high spirits in check. Enter Sean Connery. As Matt Zoller Seitz said of the late actor in his obituary for Ebert.com, “Connery’s flinty-eyed dangerousness made him an emblem of an ancient brand of masculinity—one that would become increasingly questioned during the second half of his life and in the decades following his retirement. Like certain film stars from before his time (like John Wayne) and after (think Mel Gibson), Connery continues to fascinate and excite despite (or because of) the knowledge that the image and the man had a lot in common.”
Here he exhibits a toned-down prelude to his stuck-in-the-ranks, awakening avenger beat cop Malone in The Untouchables, who butted heads with his corrupt police chief and old buddy from the streets. O’Niel and Sheppard dance around each other with what they know and don’t know. Sheppard is happy to wait for the two hired killers to get there on the next shuttle. No-one will interfere – they’re professionals. O’Niel has had to abandon his family to go it alone in the filth of corruption where he won’t turn a blind eye anymore. Pauline Kael felt the film lacked some convincing characterization though: “the miners, who know that O’Niel is being stalked, lounge around in their bar, and Sheppard, the murderer of dozens of their fellow-workers, sits among them, accepted. This cockeyed setup might have had at least a little point if there had been some TV monitors in the bar and if practically everybody on Io were clustered there to watch the big shootout— and perhaps lay odds on the outcome.” But O’Niel isn’t a hearts and minds kind of guy. He’s a plodder. He’s promised himself one last case, because it’s his job, then he’s out, with his family. He feels a compulsion to know if his principles are really worth fighting for in this roughneck hellhole that most likely will brush over his investigation and move on, driven as ever by the almighty dollar. He opens up to Lazarus: “I want to find out if... well if they're right. There's a whole machine that works because everybody does what they are supposed to. And I found out... I was supposed to be something I didn't like. That's what's in the program. That's my rotten little part in the rotten machine. I don't like it. So I'm going to find out if they're right.” He does, however, make a half-hearted attempt to recruit some help from the miners in the lounge. To at least stir their collective conscience.
“You’re a dead man,” Sheppard finally opines, goaded by O’Niel on the results of his evidence trail. “You hear me?” O’Niel smirks back, “I hear you.” Connery’s lawmen both sport pump-action shotguns, yet once he’s dispatched the hired goons, O’Niel merely clunks Sheppard on the jaw. He knows his corporate paymasters will take care of him. The real fight will go on in the boardroom, evidence exposed. For the Marshall, though, it’s over.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Peter Hyams’ screenplay for Outland [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Everything you need to know about Outland (1981)
Martin Bower and Bill Pearson talk about the miniature effects for Outland in this extended segment from, Sense of Scale. Photos: Martin Bower, Bill Pearson. (Interview done in 2012)