15 February 2009

Movielog, Outland

Outland, 1981
Written and Directed by Peter Hyams
112 minutes

Outland is a frustrating movie, because there are quite a few things about it that I really like. The problem is that those things are buried in a shitstorm of things that make me shove my face into my hands and shake my head in disgust. It's basically the story of a Marshall (Sean Connery) who is assigned to a mining town, finds greed and corruption destroying lives through the drug trade, and is forced the Clean Up the Town through grit and determined use of violence, aided only by a beautiful doctor. In Space!!!!

So let's dispense with anything like a formal review and just give a list of the good and the bad.

Good: Maybe I'm just jaded by this CGI age we live in, but I was really impressed by the model work and the set design. Outland is set in a mining colony on Io, Jupiter's first moon, and the sets mostly look like what a mining colony on Io might actually look like. Everything is a little bit dirty, all the actors look like people who might actually work for a living, and for the most part everything is scaled about right. People sleep in cots that would be right at home on a submarine, which is exactly right.

Bad: Well, except for the fact that there's way too much space in some areas. Several scenes take place on a racquetball court (hey, it was the early eighties; every movie had to have a racquetball court) that seems way too large for such a frivolous amenity. Also, there are just too many damned people -- an extended chase sequence through a dining area is packed with people, and there are only supposed to be a couple of thousand people on the entire base. In addition, some of the effects are really chintzy, most notably an optical effect in which people's heads explode due to explosive decompression. (Of course, that effect was used in the trailer for the film, and was likely considered a showstopper at the time, but now it's a showstopper for a very different reason.)

Good: Real weapons. Sawed-off shotguns seem to be standard issue for the police force, and the bad guys use realistic-looking sniper rifles. No laser beams or energy weapons to be seen anywhere, and while a shotgun seems a bit silly for a standard-issue weapon, you could probably justify it by saying that it's less likely to penetrate a hull than a rifle or handgun. Maybe.

Bad: Some of the action scenes towards the big finale are pretty laughable. Apparently gravity is Earth-normal, unless you put on a spacesuit or step outside of an airlock, and then you float all about as if you're in orbit. The idea of a realistic fistfight by two characters wearing spacesuits is a good one, the way it's executed here is ridiculous.

Good: Remember that "beautiful doctor?" Well, she's actually not that beautiful. She's a world-weary woman who knows her personal limitations (there's a reason you get send to the ass end of nowhere like Io) and is played by Frances Sternhagen, whom those of you who are Law & Order fanatics like me will recognize but probably not be able to place. Sternhagen is about the same age as Connery, and she fits the story a lot better than a more conventionally "beautiful" woman would have. Sternhagen is such a good actor and the character is so well-written (well, in comparison with the rest of the film) that she steals every scene she's in. At the end I wanted a sequel that followed this character instead of the Connery chump.

Bad: Yeah, but don't go thinking of this as a feminist anthem just yet. There's a boring and pretty much completely unnecessary subplot involving Connery's wife and child that is so backward it grates. Yeah, I understand it's supposed to give Connery's choice to remain on the station meaning by providing him with a choice, but every moment the family (especially that annoying kid) was on-screen I wanted to claw my eyes out.

Good: Peter Boyle. He's the villain of the piece, and he's a good one -- a middle-management kind of bad guy who feels justified in what he's doing. He's dirty, but not that dirty.

Bad: The climax of the film is basically Connery uppercutting Boyle and causing him to knock over a table and some chairs. And it's played seriously, not for laughs. Also played seriously: Connery sticks his bare hand directly into some hot oil to retrieve a crucial bit of evidence, and suffers no injury. Maybe that bit was a tryout for his role in Highlander?

Okay, I think you get the idea. It's tempting to think that what this movie really needs is a bunch of drunken SF nerds riffing on it, that it could be a sort of camp classic for nerdly hipsters, but there's too much good here to dismiss it quite so easily. It's a product of its time and probably not really very good even when it was first made, but there are aspects of Outland that could really be adapted into a much better film, and SF fans should give it a shot if they're so inclined. Just don't expect very much when you do.

Rating: C-

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