For Sean Connery there was, indeed, life after Bond.
For most Bond actors this has not always been the case, Daniel Craig possibly excepted. But for Connery, he went on to do any number of notable films like “The Wind and the Lion,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Robin and Marion,” “Highlander,” “The Name of the Rose,” “The Untouchables,” “The Presidio,” an independently produced Bond, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “The Rock,” and the movie under discussion here, the minor cult hit from 1981, “Outland.”
In “Outland” writer-director Peter Hyams (“The Star Chamber,” “The Presidio,” “Timecop,” “2010,” “End of Days,” “The Relic”) reprises the theme of “High Noon,” but in outer space. You’ll recall that in “High Noon” Gary Cooper played Marshal Will Kane, a small-town lawman in the Old West, waiting for several baddies to show up on the noon train and kill him. As we watched the clock wind down to the fateful hour, we saw Marshal Kane try to find a few townspeople willing to help him defend himself and the town from the evildoers. No luck. The townsfolk seemed more interested in protecting their own interests than in putting their lives on the line for anybody, no matter how good the cause.
In “Outland” the setting is sometime in the future on the third moon of Jupiter–Io. The moon is seventy hours from the nearest space station, with a supply shuttle coming only once a week and the gravity very low. There’s a mining operation on Io with over 2100 people in it, all working for a company back on Earth. The man newly in charge of security on Io is Federal District Marshal Will O’Niel (Connery). You can guess what’s going to happen.
You get the feeling from the outset that the filmmakers wanted to create a tone similar to “Alien,” made a couple of years earlier. Jerry Goldsmith’s music for “Outland,” production designer Philip Harrison’s sets, and John Stears’s special effects look very much in the same dark, moody vein as “Alien.” The mining complex, for instance, looks like a cross between the main spaceship in “Alien” and one of today’s big offshore oil rigs, all towers and girders, platforms and rigging. Indeed, the film’s visual impact may be as important as its main character; its appearance certainly overshadows its plot.
The story is, as I say, similar to that of “High Noon.” The thing that separates the two films, though, is the greater complexity of characterizations in “High Noon.” About all “Outland” does is borrow the narrative, without the moral or philosophical complications that came with the old Western. So, in “Outland” we’ve got the new lawman in town, the Marshal (oddly, spelled with two “l’s” in the prologue but with an appropriate one “l” on the marshal’s office door), immediately bumping heads with the mining operation’s general manager, Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle). We can sense from the outset that Sheppard is a no-goodnik up to some nefarious business. However, Sheppard is hardly a force in the movie; he’s not someone we can get too worked up about one way or the other, he’s so nondescript. He’s a generic bully that we know will get a comeuppance eventually.
Well, Marshal O’Niel isn’t on the moon more than a few days before he notices that an uncommon number of employees have been going crazy and committing suicide. When he investigates, he uncovers a drug ring, the drugs apparently helping the miners to work harder and longer but making them funny in the head.
The movie maintains a good tone of mystery, with O’Niel investigating the case and picking up clues to the evildoers. The problem develops that as O’Niel proceeds, he doesn’t know whom to trust. This makes for a good, tense, one-against-all crime thriller, with the science-fiction aspect being secondary.
Among the supporting cast we find Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lazarus, the cranky head medical officer on the facility. She’s sort of a female Bones McCoy and may be the only person the Marshal figures he can count on. Kika Markham plays the Marshal’s wife, Carol O’Niel, a woman who has had it up to here with life in space and wants to take their son back to Earth. James Sikking is Sgt. Montone, the Marshal’s second-in-command, who may or may not be on the take from the company. And you’ll see John Ratzenberger in a small, early role in his career, as Tarlow, one of the mining employees.
The problem with the film is that it breaks no new ground, and one can anticipate most of its story line well in advance. Connery, though, makes it worthwhile by his very presence. His quiet, stalwart, incorruptible, no-nonsense hero fits the rugged Gary Cooper mold. Once he finds out who the culprits are, the issue becomes how he is to bring them in. At that point, he learns that even more baddies are showing up on the next shuttle, just as the villains in “High Noon” were arriving on the noon train. We even get a clock ticking away the hours and minutes to the shuttle’s arrival, just as we kept seeing clocks all over the place in “High Noon.”
On whom can the Marshal rely? Not even his own men. The final showdown displays a degree of suspense and things get fairly exciting for a few moments. Nevertheless, it’s still mostly watching and listening to Connery that rivets our attention, not the rudimentary plot actions.
The high-definition Blu-ray disc transfer preserves the movie’s 2.40:1 theatrical ratio by using an MPEG-4/AVC codec and a single-layer BD25. The object delineation is never the sharpest, perhaps a condition of the original print, the picture looking a bit soft and rough. There is also a slight veiling of the image, a slight blur. Things are a tad murky in the film’s more-shadowy scenes, too, and facial hues often look a touch too dark.
Warner engineers use lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio to reproduce the soundtrack, which the studio originally promoted, in least in some theaters, as “Megasound,” an early surround-sound of its day. It displays a very prominent deep bass and whole lot of it. There is also a good deal of information directed toward the rear and side speakers, and there is an especially wide front-channel stereo spread. Dynamics are more than adequate and dialogue is clear, but there is sometimes a slight edginess, too, not much but enough to notice.
There are only two main bonuses on the Blu-ray disc: an audio commentary by writer-director Peter Hyams and a standard-definition theatrical trailer in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The additional extras include a robust thirty-one scene selections; English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Spanish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
While one might more properly categorize “Outland” as a Western than as a science-fiction film, maybe we should simply call it an outer-space Western and leave it at that. If you enjoy the kind of ethical dilemmas offered by “High Noon,” you might enjoy this simplified version. “Outland” is not a great movie by any means, but it’s a reliable one, with another solid performance from Sean Connery, who always makes a staunch, stalwart protagonist of truly heroic proportions. Even if the film disappoints you, I doubt that Connery will.