***/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking
written and directed by Peter Hyams
by Jefferson Robbins Has anybody looked at Alan "Laddie" Ladd Jr. as an auteur of U.S. film's late-'70s/early-'80s science-fiction renaissance? By definition, the auteur theory addresses directors, but producer-execs are inevitably part of a film's genome--at their worst, barriers to a film's artistic ambitions, at their best, enablers of daring visions, and often rescuers or champions of interesting failures. Ladd, of course, famously midwifed and defended Star Wars (later Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope) while he was president of Fox, and the studio went on to shepherd Alien to theatres during his tenure.1 His production firm, The Ladd Company, sent forth Blade Runner, the first film to put a Philip K. Dick concept on the screen in addition to being very much its own, deeply influential beast. Some unifiers among these films include introductory crawls or intertitles, situating the audience in a far future or faraway galaxy; grimy or rusty milieux, painting the SF frontier as a sumptuous scrap pile; deep attention to class, with starcraft piloted by hardworking space jockeys in trucker caps; and, as it was pointed out to me on Facebook the other day, a reliance on established fantasy/SF artists (H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb, Moebius) to carry out much of the production design. Building a world costs money, and Ladd signed the checks.2
Peter Hyams's Outland, arriving between Alien and Blade Runner in Laddie's career, almost bridges those two superior films, as though the mogul presided over the building of some kind of future-historic continuity. The opening intertitle cards place us on Con-Am 27, a claustrophobic mining outpost on Jupiter's moon Io (helpfully phoneticized), to which Marshal W.T. O'Niel (Sean Connery) is exiled as chief peacekeeper.3 This could easily be one of those Off-World colonies Rick Deckard sees advertised on floating airships, while the mining enterprise belongs to a criminally profiteering space corporation that might as well be Weyland-Yutani. If we haven't quite escaped our solar system, it's implied, we're at least straining in that direction for the ever-scarcer resources that Ellen Ripley's good ship Nostromo will one day, fatefully, tug past LV-426. We didn't really need Prometheus, see, when there's a demi-prequel dating back to early VHS.
Ladd shelled out for Philip Harrison to devise the landscape and interiors of Outland's colony--Millennium Falcon hallways and boltholes that don't look suitable for human habitation. Con-Am 27 is a utilitarian armpit, where roughneck titanium miners knife each other without reason during artsily-choreographed simulated-sex shows. O'Niel (the spelling of his name is inexplicable) is fresh on the job when his wife (Kika Markham) flees on the weekly shuttle with their son--driven away, essentially, by her husband's downward career spiral to progressively worse hellholes. Hurt but stoic, O'Niel probes a stimulant epidemic promoted by plant manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) that bumps up miners' productivity but also inspires suicidal psychosis among such victims as John Ratzenberger and '80s-ubiquitous Steven Berkoff. Most of them off themselves by stepping unshielded into Io's atmosphere, where depressurization turns them into soupy bits. This moonscape will be employed as a murder weapon more than once.4 The word "outland" implies desolation, alienation, a frontier, and O'Niel's title of marshal denotes Hyams's film as successor to any number of lawman-driven westerns, not least Fred Zinnemann's High Noon. Unlike Gary Cooper, though, Connery no longer has a peace-loving wife for whom to set aside violence. What he does have, after teaming with overwritten staff doctor/human frown Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), is a dozen lazy deputies who don't have his back, and a countdown until Sheppard's hitmen arrive by shuttle.
Hyams clearly loved this project, taking distinctive care both in the visual FX vistas of Io and Con-Am 27 and in smaller shots. There's an evocative dolly-in, for instance, on the condescending talk Sheppard gives O'Niel at an administrative staff meeting--Connery and Boyle, two of the finest mugs in movies, properly adored. Hyams crafts one of action cinema's better foot chases when O'Niel pursues a miscreant basically from one end of the facility to the other by way of several different hatches, platforms, and levels. The image of Connery chuffing down an octagonal white, 2001-ish corridor, I was surprised to find, is one that's stuck in my subconscious from seeing the trailers in childhood. The writer-director's class antennae are up: As with his earlier Capricorn One, corporate greed is the trigger for the action as Con-Am reaps "legitimate" profits from its drug-fuelled employees' labour while Sheppard's cabal piles up illicit gains from the drug trade itself.5 Hyams puts the film's opening lines in the mouths of the miners themselves, griping about their company's contract violations and their union chiefs' complicity therein. The hard mechanical environment of the moon station, as well as O'Niel's status as a lawman ordered to enforce not the law but rather his masters' business-friendly will, indict corporate practices further. "That's my rotten little part in the rotten machine," the marshal tells Lazarus. "I don't like it."
But there had to be compromises somewhere. O'Niel is warned throughout, not least by sullied aide-de-camp Montone (James B. Sikking), that the problem is bigger than Sheppard, that powerful forces will crush the marshal for stepping out of line and that their reach extends well beyond the colony. Yet once the action peters out--and it's fine action, though the closing spacesuit jiu-jitsu fight gets a little airless (forgive me)--the payoff is muted. If O'Niel cleans up the drug trade, doesn't Con-Am 27 become a collective of strung-out miners heading for withdrawal? What's the comeuppance for Sheppard, besides a manly Sean Connery uppercut? No one can say. Hyams wrings a respectable amount of tension from the countdown to the impressive, rackety arrival of the assassins' shuttle, and their disembarking is shot as ominously as an alien invasion. Unfortunately, all that potential energy leeches out in the final minutes, when the movie stops being as canny and present-minded as its hero. If there was a studio (Ladd?) mandate for a happy ending, the result is a plot that thinks itself immune to its own consequences.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Outland's first-ever Blu-ray release mounts a 2.40:1, 1080p image that reads as mildly soft, likely an artifact of the original anamorphic lensing. In Hyams's cinematography (Stephen Goldblatt is credited, but there's evidence he was sidelined by the director), the hostile vacuum of Io, the dankness of the station interiors, even the malice of Sheppard (e.g., that dolly shot mentioned above) are visually represented by blackness. It's kind of fun to note how often Hyams manages to place darkened portions of the frame alongside well-lighted ones, as in the miners' stacked-coffin living quarters. The dark segments are clean of grain or crush and never obscure fine detail, such as interior wall patterns or the models used for station exteriors. Colours blossom impressively in their limited appearances, like an acres-high greenhouse or blood dribbled on the floor of a pristine white hallway. For its Io surface shots, Outland employed the IntroVision process, a front- and rear-projection method of photography that captured actors in-camera between optical FX layers. Those sections hold up, particularly on the camera's first descent into the titanium mines, although Hyams is so impressed with the Io station that his opening shot dwells on it too long, defying the rhythm of Jerry Goldsmith's score. When O'Niel leads his pursuers on a merry chase through Io's low gravity, the FX exteriors show a bit of wear (plus a brief spurt of matting, something IntroVision was created to avoid), but that's probably a function of looking at them for too long with an eye tuned by CG.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track would seem perfectly poised to recreate the 70mm theatrical experience, which in some venues utilized a long-defunct process (the studio's own "Megasound" system) that directed amplified bass effects to specially-installed speakers. But to my ears, the sound comes off as thin, and the noise effects, as in the clattering foot chase, give off lots of crack, not much boom. I'd expect the subwoofer to wake up more dramatically for the marshal's pistol-grip shotgun--the firearm of choice on Con-Am 27, perhaps to avoid rifle or handgun slugs puncturing a bulkhead. There's a notable loudness gap between the distinct post-dubbed dialogue, like that of the miners in their pressure suits, and the somewhat blurrier on-set voices. The attendant English SDH subtitles, for what it's worth, play unreasonably fast and loose with dialogue that's pretty spare to begin with.
Hyams, slagged in the years post-Outland as a workmanlike, even negligent director-for-hire, offers generous insights on a DD 2.0 commentary track--the disc's sole extra aside from the three-minute, standard-def theatrical trailer. It's a new item, obviously, since Hyams name-checks "Deadwood" as something in the vein of what he was attempting with Outland and notes London actor Clarke Peters, playing one of O'Niel's deputies, as a later regular on "The Wire" and "Treme". He's fulsome with praise for both Connery and Boyle (without noting the latter's death in 2006) and recalls how his leading man referred to him only as "boy" in the early days of production. Charming. The director had leisure to crowd the extras onto his mining-quarters set prior to shooting, then observed them while they stood around for four or five hours. "Boredom set in," Hyams says, and when it did, he sketched the extras' casual, lounging attitudes and used it to create the impressive wide shot of their workaday lives seen in the final film. One of Ladd's chief creative notes on viewing the Outland workprint, according to Hyams, was to call for more gore in the movie's death-by-elevator sequence. The director is especially quick to offer observations on lighting choices and mentions Goldblatt only once, in regards to some model shooting.6 Say what you will about Hyams, but he stewarded the aesthetics of Outland well, despite eventually losing command of its dramatic arc.
1. This is not to forget Damnation Alley, Wizards, or Looker, but those movies certainly fall in the "interesting failure" category--big-idea SF pieces consigned to cult status by technical inadequacy or box-office indifference. return
2. You can't attribute this game change entirely to Ladd, of course--the currents of SF were shifting in all media. By the time William Gibson sat down for a first-run screening of Blade Runner, he was already a third of the way through with writing Neuromancer. The future was Now, and it came pre-used. return
3. These orienting intertitles work too hard to spell out the specifics of the setting, seem to arrive outside of logical order, and misspell O'Niel's title as "marshall." return
4. Paul Verhoeven would later tease this method of execution out to extraordinary lengths in Total Recall. I'm not sure which film gets the biophysics right, but I do know that anyone surviving such a process would look a lot worse for wear than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rachel Ticotin do at the end of their adventure. return
5. This pings for me with Nick Reding's book Methland, about crystal methamphetamine's conquest of one small Iowa community. Among the drug's early footholds: the local meatpacking plant, where bumps of meth helped workers carry out their ugly, repetitive labours for longer hours, wringing more money out of their ever-shrinking pay scales. return
6. In-camera FX aside, Hyams doesn't dwell much on the film's showier moments. "That's a balloon," he deadpans when John Ratzenberger's head explodes. return