Mysterious deaths plague a mining colony on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. It seems something is driving the miners to madness, and it’s up to one man to figure it all out. In the 1981 film Outland, Sean Connery plays a marshal stationed on the remote space mine. The film is a cop drama set in the far reaches of the solar system. Outland capitalizes on the isolation of space to create a tense setting where the only person you can count on is yourself. More whodunit than sci-fi, Outland is a tense cat-and-mouse thriller that actually holds up well despite the clunky computers and corded telephones that betray its age.
Marshal William T. O’Niel has just arrived on Jupiter’s moon Io with his wife and preteen son. He is beginning his one year stint keeping the peace throughout the titanium mine. In the tradition of the classic “lone hero” storyline, O’Niel is soon without company. His wife is tired of space life and his son has never stepped foot on earth. They head out to the nearest space-station to find a shuttle to Earth at the first opportunity. And then O’Niel truly is a man alone. The general manager of the mine, Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle), makes it clear that he is running things just fine, and he doesn’t need any help from the marshal. O’Niel’s only ally is the grisly Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), who has a disdain for people in general.
Though the deaths appear to be suicide brought on by space madness, O’Niel is convinced there is more to it. The rest of his law enforcement team is afraid to rock the boat by helping with the investigation. Their jobs are breaking up fights in the bar and making sure the colony hookers don’t get beat up. They aren’t meant for homicide investigations. It would be easier for O’Niel to turn a blind eye to the problems of the mining colony, but he faces a personal dilemma. He realizes he has not been sent to the colony because he is great at his job, but because he is complacent. For most of his career he has gone from place to place quietly serving out his tour of duty with little fanfare. He is a safe bet to keep everything status quo, or so everyone seems to think. O’Niel wants to prove everyone wrong, most of all himself. Though it means risking everything, he endeavors to outsmart Sheppard and anyone else who doubts him.
Outland is buoyed by fine performances from Connery, Sternhagen, and Boyle. It’s gritty feel gives a realistic air to its space setting. In fact, the film does not look all the futuristic when viewed in 2012. In addition to the aforementioned primitive computers and corded phones, the characters wear drab jumpsuits, smoke cigarettes, and spend their evenings drinking in the local bar. The law enforcement officials carry regular rifles that shoot old fashioned bullets. It all looks rather ordinary on the inside, though common sense should tell anyone that guns and greenhouses pressurized for a lack of atmosphere simply don’t mix. It’s not until the workers venture outside in heavy spacesuits that everything is a little different. The dangers of outer space press upon them, making the deaths all the more chilling.
Though the film has a gritty look by nature, the Blu-ray presentation is excellent. The high definition presentation only enhances the gloomy feel of the film with its sharp detail showing the layers of dirt and grime. Colors are well represented. Most of the interiors are dark and drab, but the infirmary is a stark off-white, and blood appears as a deep, frightening red. The definition is so clear that it becomes all the more apparent that the space-mine buildings in the exterior shots are models. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. The colony, backed by the swirling clouds of the gas giant behind it, and the blackness of space looks great.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack makes good use of the surrounds for the ambient sounds of the colony, especially during crowded bar scenes. The hum of the station and spacecraft is present along with all the pings and thumps expected in an industrial setting. The dialogue is clear and easy to understand. Outland does not show its age in terms of the way it looks or sounds on Blu-ray.
The special features are sparse, but the commentary by by writer-director Peter Hyams is entertaining and informative. The commentary seems to have been recorded recently, as Hyams references modern TV shows. He mentions it has been a while since he has watched this film, but his memory must be pretty strong as he remembers a great deal about the production. The only other feature is the theatrical trailer, which means the vintage “making of” featurette from the DVD didn’t carry over for some reason.
While I don’t consider Outland to be a sci-fi classic, I find it to be a very enjoyable film to watch. I like Connery’s performance and I have always appreciated the interplay between he and Sternhagen. Outland is a film worth checking out or revisiting if you haven’t seen it in a while, especially with this strong high definition transfer.