Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Outland" (1981)

"Outland" (1981)
Starring Sean Connery and Peter Boyle
Written and directed by Peter Hyams

Recently while intoxicated, I was asked what my 'same-sex celebrity crush' would be.  My answer?  A shaken but not stirred James Bond sandwich of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig.  Throughout his career, I've felt Connery has exuded a sort of old-school cool and sexy that few actors have ever matched.  Like Stallone, I think he's one of the actors whose work I'll always watch, even if I don't think the movie is all that good.  "Outland" is one such film.

In "Outland," writer/director Peter Hyams transplants the story from the classic Western "High Noon" into a sci-fi setting.  Taking place on Jupiter's moon, Io, at a distant mining facility, "Outland" stars Connery as O'Niel, the new Federal Marshall tasked with keeping the peace.  He begins to suspect something isn't quite right when several workers suddenly go crazy and commit suicide.  As he digs into those deaths and others like them, he starts to discover a frightening truth about this particular (and successful) mining facility.  It's not a spoiler for me to tell you he quickly discovers that the villain of the piece is the facility's administrator, Sheppard (Peter Boyle).  The majority of the film centers on the power struggle between the two, with O'Niel quickly realizing that if he's going to take down Sheppard, he's not going to have a lot of help doing so.

The problem with "Outland" is difficult to describe.  There's a certain stillness to the proceedings that sort of saps the life and energy out of it.  Conversations seem to occur with a strange stiltedness, no one seems to put a lot of emotion into their line deliveries.  Confrontations between Sheppard and O'Niel that should be full of tension just... aren't.  Whether this is a fault of editing or direction is hard to say.  Perhaps tension is that key thing that's missing in what's supposed to be a thriller.  There are certainly times in the film where tension is achieved, mostly during action sequences and the moments leading up to them, but everything else just seems rote.  Quiet and stillness can be very effective in creating tense situations (see "No Country for Old Men") but here, something's just not quite right about it, and that's a shame.

Certain aspects of the production design are obviously dated, which is to be expected with a movie this old, but for the most part, this is a pretty well realized sci-fi setting.  Most of the sets are detailed and make a certain sense.  "Outland" doesn't feature a slick, 'Star Trek'-style future, but more reminiscent of the recent "Battlestar Galactica" - everything here looks familiar, but somehow still a bit futuristic.  Jerry Goldsmith's score is used sparingly, but is appropriate, if not one of his classic compositions.

Ultimately, I didn't mind "Outland."  It's just good enough to like, but its potential definitely isn't reached.  In the end, it probably survives because it does build an interesting world, Connery is inherently watchable, and the action sequences are well done when they finally come.