March 15, 2011

OUTLAND (1981) - almost in the ALIEN universe

(1981, UK)

After Zardoz and Meteor, Sean Connery made a good sci-fi film...

The year before sci-fi cinema started ripping off either Blade Runner or Mad Max 2, Alien was the strongest influence on outer space action for older audiences. Humanoids From The Deep, Alien Contamination, Galaxy of Terror, Titan Find all tried to cash in before the official Alien sequel in 1986. In the meantime, Outland (1981) duplicated so many elements from Alien that it could easily be mistaken for a spin-off. It was also serious sci-fi from the Alan Ladd company just before they produced Blade Runner.

Outland looks and sounds like Alien. But it's less of a cash-in than a concerted attempt to fit in with the Alien universe of the fairly near future, and matches the high production values. Extensive large-scale modelwork represents the mine and gigantic spacecraft. Functional, claustrophobic interior sets with huge chunky airlock doors add to the realism. Plus an unsettling soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.

A gigantic titanium mine on Io, a moon of Jupiter. O'Niel (Sean Connery) is the new sheriff in town, each tour of duty lasts a year. Two deaths coincide with his arrival and catch his interest. All witnesses say the miners killed themselves, so the mine supervisor (Peter Boyle) isn't happy when O'Niel decides to investigate further. He's only just arrived and has no friends or allies. If he causes any trouble, he'll have even fewer...

I'd recommend Outland to anyone who's overdosed on Alien sequels but still wants more. Like Alien and Aliens, this was shot in Britain, all filmed on studio soundstages. There's a mostly British and American cast, with a feisty female character to remind us of Ripley. Maybe it is Ripley, or her daughter.

When I first saw this on release, I was hoping that there would be a monster somewhere in the mining complex. The trailer and publicity had teased some mysterious, messy death scenes with exploding heads. So, I was hoping for an alien cause...

Outland is a good thriller with solid characters and a great cast, but not solid sci-fi. The confined sets are convincing, but even a slim knowledge of science could spoil it for you. As always, there's no attempt to portray the (one-sixth) gravity until the characters are in a depressurised zone. And who in their right mind uses shotguns in outer space?

Peter Hyams directed this between Capricorn One and the 2001: A Space Odyssey sequel 2010. It's far and away better than his more recent sci-fi offerings like Timecop and, gulp, A Sound of Thunder...

Sean Connery had missed out on a trip into space as James Bond in You Only Live Twice, and this is the only other time you'll see him in a spacesuit. He's excellent here, and the script, dialogue and supporting cast keeps it all dramatically strong. He shares the best scenes with a wry Frances Sternhagen (Communion, Misery), playing an incurably cynical, overworked doctor. I thought she looked old in this, so I was surprised to see her again in The Mist 26 years later.

Always a treat to see the late Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver, Young Frankenstein). Hard to understand why his film work dwindled after the seventies. James Sikking (Star Trek III) was also underused in movies. Here he plays O'Niel's right-hand man in the police force. The actor's greatest role remains Howard Hunter, trigger-happy commander of the armed response team, in ground-breaking TV cop show Hill Street Blues.

So far, any DVD releases keep on repeating the same faults. Outland desperately needs remastering. There's weaving picture movement and film dirt. The 1997 DVD is anamorphic widescreen but doesn't look much sharper than the laserdisc.

Here's an original trailer, cropped from 2.35 to 16:9, and it's far murkier than the DVD...


  1. This science fiction film has been so elusive over the years...I've always wanted to see it, but the dvd is out of print and Netflix doesnt have it. I want to watch this one badly cause it sounds interesting, the production values look solid and so does the art direction. Saturn 3 is another sci-fi that has escaped me for the same reasons.

    Like you say, I definetly see a bit of Alien on the art direction.

    I saw Capricorn One, wasnt all that bad, but wasnt all that great either. It was the one about the conspiracy behind a trip to mars that was faked by the government. Kind of mirroring that conspiracy theory that says that the Americans never went to the moon and that it was all staged.

  2. Miles has left a new comment on "OUTLAND (1981):

    I picked this DVD up for next-to-nothing a while back but still haven't got around to watching it. Sorry to hear it's going to be such an eyesore. I saw OUTLAND on its orginal cinema release and enjoyed it a lot, later finding it hard to come to terms with genre critics lambasting it; perhaps today they would treat it more kindly, considering what passes for sci-fi these days.

    Of course, I'm not even hoping it will be as good as CAPRICORN ONE. I have to disagree with the previous commenter who claims it's not "all that great". I think it's a bona fide classic. It's so good I tried to see as many of Hyams' other films as possible, though I called it a day after THE RELIC...maybe I should revisit it and play catch up? I don't remember TIMECOP being anything more than a harmless timewaster, but I'm tempted to pick up the Bluray. BTW if you don't have the CAPRICORN ONE Bluray yet, then what are you waiting for?!

  3. Watched the blu-ray of CAPRICORN ONE the other day. I agree it's very entertaining, one of my favourite Jerry Goldsmith themes as well. But the UK blu-ray, from ITV, isn't much better quality than the region 1 DVD. Poor video compression and the worst 5.1 mix I've ever heard - really muddy dialogue.
    Still needs a proper restoration.

    I'm going to pass on ITV's BOYS FROM BRAZIL blu-ray, if this is their idea of high definition presentation.

  4. Sorry Miles, I deleted your comment by accident, but reposted the words

  5. Here’s a few more similarities with Alien:
    Jerry Goldsmith - Composer
    John Mollo - Costum Design
    John Chisholm - Prop Mam
    Stuart Rose - Draughtsman
    Martin Bower - Supervising Model Maker/Miniature Effects
    Jon Sorensen - Visual Effects Miniatures
    Bill Pearson - Supervising Model Maker: Miniature Effects
    Mary Selway - Casting
    Tiny Nicholls - Wardrobe Supervisor

    I love Outland...
    I love Alien...
    I Love this review!

  6. I love that you love Outland, Alien and this review...

  7. yes i agree...this belonged in the same universe as Alien...the mining company could have easily been Weylan Yutani...anyways this review brought back nice memories of this unique & odd sci-fi movie which felt like Alien.Cheers.

  8. The film was recently given a Blu-Ray release sometime in 2012 with improved picture and sound quality, courtesy of Warner Brothers. It retains the audio commentary found on the DVD, as well as a trailer. Overall, yeah, this film could easily be mistaken for taking place in the ALIEN universe given its aesthetics. Overall, I really like this movie, and given that the problems facing the protagonist are driven, much like ALIEN, by corporate greed, it fits right in with Ridley Scott's horror masterpiece.