It is a very rare thing indeed when a writer and director can take a well loved genre like the western, take the essence that makes it popular and apply it to a completely different genre. This is what makes the film Outland so special. It is basically the same story as the well beloved western classic High Noon only it is set in a mining colony orbiting a moon of Jupiter. Although superficially this is a Sci-Fi flick at its heart is a good old fashion western. The mining colony is a typical old west frontier town, the men work hard for the company, the only employer in town, and they play hard with company provided prostitutes. With so many rough individuals there is a need for a tough sheriff, Marshal William ONiel (Sean Connery). He is broken down, beset by family problems, a fading career rapidly running down but still holding on to the moral responsibilities of the job. It turns out the resident company man Sheppard (Peter Boyle) is bringing in a powerful amphetamine to increase the ever important productivity. It really doesnt matter that some of the men go crazy and either kill themselves or the company hookers, thats just part of the bottom-line. It does matter to the noble marshal who enlists the aide of the even more broken down company doctor Marian Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen). Sheppard has hired some out of town hit men to take care of ONiel. The marshal tries unsuccessfully to get his deputy (James Sikking) to help but no one there is willing to help him. This is a simple plot that worked so well in High Noon but here it is a masterpiece how well it translates into this new genre. Every element that made the original so memorable is present here. The marshal is almost completely isolated. Even though many know about the deadly drugs being pushed by the company they dont care, they share in the production bonus and look at it as just another danger inherent in the job. The juxtaposition of family troubles and real time count down to the killers arrival create a tension that is palpable. We see the marshal looking at pictures of his family who recently left him while in the background is the ever-present clock that counts down the minutes until the shuttle containing the hit men will arrive. The company man that puts up with this dismal posting sure that if he can increase profits he will receive a promotion and far better posting in the main office. The film pits a man with a definite moral compass against one motivated by pure greed together with an explosive outcome.
I could not have selected a better cast than is assembled here. Connery gives one of his best performances in his career here. Rather than being type cast as Bond, he grew older and embraced the different roles available to him. He plays the marshal straight from the hip, a modern Gary Cooper but far from an imitation. He straddles the fine line in this role between a concerned family man and a peace officer that is bound by a higher code of conduct. Right there is the essence of the western that code to live by, the modern embodiment of the lawmans sacred trust. Sternhagen is wonderful as the crusty doctor. She provides not only the only character that believes in ONiel but offers a little comic relief. Sternhagen is the equivalent of Doc Holiday. Superficially an old drunk but also a person that is not so far down that morality is lost. Normally a comic actor, Boyle owns the role of the local company man. He conveys the dismissive attitude needed to do his job yet the undercurrent of greed is always there. All these characters are in this outpost living in a dangerous environment, working there because there is simply no place for them left on earth. The cast does not present stereotypical western characters but rather successfully adapts the characteristics to this modern setting.
Director Peter Hyams has had a varied career mostly centered on the futuristic. On his resume are such works as End of Days, The Relic, Timecop and 2010: The Year We Made Contact. This has provided him the opportunity to work with very inventive actors and special effects people. Here in Outland he recreates the old west look and feel in a modern environment. The quarters are crowed, the bar noisy the working conditions almost brutal. You really get the feel that with human beings the more things change the more they stay the same. The pacing of the film is impeccable. The urgency created by a simple device like the countdown clock keeps the audience in a constant state of anticipation. When the climax arrives the action really gets started. Hymans use of contrasting light and shadows is extremely creative. The sterile space station whites against the dark recreational scenes bring home the pervading theme of good versus evil. I have always enjoyed it when a director can use the sets to reflect the mood and story of a film. Too many directors ignore the importance of the visual settings have on the emotions of the viewers.
The disc is one of the earliest DVDs made. Released in late 1997 the standards of today do exceed what is presented here. Still, the presentation is better than the old video tape I have. The audio is a remixed Dolby 5.1 There are effects here that I dont think I heard in the theater and I certainly never heard on the video tape. The sound field is well balanced and the many audio effects do not drown out the dialogue. The video is presented in both widescreen and pan and scan. The widescreen appears to be matted to the 2.20:1 aspect ratio. As with the original film which was made in non anamorphic 35mm, the DVD is also not anamorphic. There are numerous artifacts present, mostly is scenes that contrast whites with the dark shadows. The overall appearance of the video is a bit grainy and closer to a VHS tape than most modern DVDs. It appears that the transfer was made from a secondary source, very possible especially considering the age of the mastering. For me the graining present just added to the old time western feel of the flick. If you like westerns and Sci-Fi flicks this is a must have. This film provides a bridge between the two genres in such a fashion that the best of both worlds are presented here.