There are films that stay off the radar for many which tend to survive over the test of time and for me, Outland was one of those films. I knew of the work of its star but found the story suspenseful as a kid, even if it may have been overtaken by another Warner sci-fi film in Blade Runner at the time both in similarities and in creative vision. And now re-watching it for the first time in several years there are several things that strike me in ways I could not recall growing up, but there is a separate experience and resonance in Outland that carves out its own space in cinema.
Written and directed by Peter Hyams (2010), the film is set in the future on Io, one of Jupiter's moons which has become a mining colony. A new police marshal named O'Neil (Sean Connery, The Rock) is assigned to the colony and is there to protect and serve. Before long, an increasing number of miners have become increasingly violent and in some cases suicidal. And when O'Neil's investigating, protecting and serving becomes a problem, it conflicts with the business that colony head Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein) conducts, then it becomes an issue.
When I saw Outland as a kid, pretty much the only thing I remembered about it at the time was how cool it was that James Bond was doing a space movie of sorts, and he carries the action well. I mean, he says 'Think it over!' to a guy he is trying to apprehend, and I would put it next to 'What's your game?' and 'Losers always whine about their best...' when it comes to memorable Connery lines. But what he does with the drama is somewhat understated and it convincing. O'Neil comes to the colony with a wife and son, but she has had enough of colonies through the years and wants to live on Earth for the first time in years. Both O'Neil's assignment and dedication to them have clouded his judgment through the years. When his wife eventually leaves the colony and takes his son with her, he plays the video message over and over, and when they finally talk it results in an emotional moment for Connery, one I cannot remember seeing before. His slowly escalating battles with Sheppard and his men are interesting and tense to watch, and as he gears up for a final battle with Sheppard's hired mercenaries, he seemingly does some final acts like getting drunk one last time as a manner of closure.
He gets drunk with Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen, Dolphin Tale), the colony doctor, long since entrenched in a mindset of cynicism, sarcasm and self-awareness. She helps O'Neil with his medical investigation, and in other movies perhaps the two would be involved romantically, but smartly they're not. They are both set in their ways to do otherwise would be a compromise, and frankly they work better as it is and her performance is engaging. To that end, James B. Sikking (Fever Pitch) turns in an admirable job as Montone, the colony police sergeant on the take.
While the visuals in Blade Runner prove to be dazzling and rightfully so, Hyams' world of Io in Outland is darker, dirtier, more dour. There are no large buildings, vacant or otherwise, no clubs, no cars and buses. Everything seems to have been there for a while and the dirt and dust from the moon feels like it is not going anywhere. An occasional lifeline in the form of a shuttle is just that; simple transportation to get back to civilization. In a way, Hyams' wants to convey this as a crime drama that happens to be in outer space and many times it does this convincingly. There are moments of hinkiness to be fair; I mean, with all these pressurized environments, sawed off shotguns are the weapon of choice in the colony and even in space(!) in one scene, but the boldness of vision earns praise.
Outland may not be the most popular film of the genre or even within the twelve months of its release, but seeing it now from a different perspective and appreciating the performances of Connery and Sternhagen, the direction of Hyams and the story being told, it is nice to have it get the justice it deserves. Is it hidden from Blade Runner and from Connery's Bond performances? Sure, but it certainly does not take away from the film's merits, of which there are many.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner gives Outland an AVC-encoded 2.40:1 widescreen presentation. To the best of my recollection I never saw the original DVD which was source of a lot of scorn and ridicule. However, in looking at the Blu-ray it looks like Warner may have done a new transfer for the film (considering Hyams recorded a commentary presumably for the occasion), and the results look amazing. Black levels look deep and almost inky, and image detail in the foreground and background is clearer and more discernible than expected. Textures on walls and carpets look clear and can be easily made out, and colors are reproduced vividly, with the red drug looking vibrant three decades later. Film grain is present while viewing and comes out in things like the shots inside the workers' locker rooms and residence, but does not dominate the image. Kudos to Warner for the work on the feature.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround for the film, another surprise to me considering the film was released in the age of Dolby stereo two-channel mixes. With that said, it sounds superb, with the score using all of the channels efficiently with little in the way of mirroring, and a soundtrack free of chirps or hissing. Directional effects are somewhat minimal, but channel panning is present and marginally effective, and in club scenes the music even gets some low-end activity to peddle its wares. For this three decade old film to (at times) sound better than those released earlier in the year is saying something, and Warner deserves much praise for the technical work given to Outland.
Hyams provides a commentary for the film that is fascinating to listen to. Three decades later he still has some decent recollection on the production, right down to the creation of the score and soundtrack in the movie. He recounts the initial inspiration for the story and what it turned into, and some ideas and intentions on the scenes themselves. He discusses working with Connery and the other members of the cast and has fond remembrances of each, along with the casting process in general. The concepts for the costume and production design are touched on, along with the difficulties of shooting on set and the technology limitations. It is a fascinating track to listen to. The trailer (2:54) completes things.
For me, Outland remains an underrated, underappreciated film and it is worth as much the time now as it was then when I was a kid. Technically the disc is one of the better catalog titles Warner has put out recently, and the commentary track does great justice for fans of the film regardless of their age. If you are new to the film and a fan of science fiction, you owe it to yourself to take a look for yourself, I firmly believe you will wind up enjoying it now and for many years down the road.