From the Archives: OUTLANDish Good Fun (January 2007)

OUTLAND-ish good fun January 7, 2007

It was, I think, early 1983, and I was looking through my local paper’s cinema listings to see if anything was on. To my great surprise I noticed that there was a matinee double-bill at the ABC cinema in town, of OUTLAND followed by BLADE RUNNER. Well, the chance to see my favorite film again was just too much to pass up. You must remember, this was back when video was just starting out, and the amazing days of actually owning your own copy of a movie was (besides being undreamed of) still many years away. Back then a very few films had appeared on video and they cost a small fortune (of course the video market would be responsible for resurrecting the fortunes of BLADE RUNNER, but that was still a few years off). So anyway, BLADE RUNNER being back on at my local cinema was a big deal, and offered a chance to see OUTLAND for the first time as a bonus.

So me and my mate Andy caught a bus into town and walked into our ABC cinema. The double-bill was showing on one of the smaller screens, a dark, dingy, auditorium with old, tattered and worn, red-cloth seats that creaked and groaned with old age, and seemed haunted by the ghosts of decades of old films and the smells they had left behind. I’m sure the whole cinema was haunted, it was a wonderful old place and of course it closed years ago, put out of business by a soul-less multiplex built out of town in 1989, but that’s another story.

I hadn’t seen OUTLAND before, so it was new to me. Now I realise it wasn’t a sequel to ALIEN but by God it should have been, it was closer to Ridley Scott’s film than any of it’s actual sequels, all it lacked was an actual alien. In just the same way that SUPERMAN RETURNS displays a love and affection for Donner’s 1978 movie, so OUTLAND displays an absolute conviction that blatantly ripping-off ALIEN was the only way to do ‘proper’ science fiction. Well it made a change from ripping-off STAR WARS I suppose. Yes the days of STAR WARS clones like THE BLACK HOLE, STARCRASH, FLASH GORDON, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS etc were numbered, at least until Lucas would decide to do it himself and make the prequels decades later… 

But back to OUTLAND. Boy, what a movie. The titles have an air of deja-vu that warns you of what is coming. As the cast credits appear on-screen over a starry background (just like ALIEN), the ‘OUTLAND’ logo slowly begins to form behind them (just like ALIEN), while a moody ambient score by Jerry Goldsmith drones on like an out-take of his own ALIEN score. I don’t know why, but nowadays I find it hard to believe that Pete Hyams could get away with it. After the title coalesces into view and disappears in a blaze of light, we are shown fx-shots of Jupiter and the Con-Am Mining station, while an on-screen text tells us where we are, what we are seeing, much the same way as the text-card in ALIEN described the Nostromo and it’s mission. Funnily enough the models were built by Martin Bower, who I believe also made the miniatures for ALIEN. The costumes were designed by John Mollo, who had designed the costumes for ALIEN… the production design wasn’t by anyone related to ALIEN but might as well have been. I always watch OUTLAND and think that it’s actually a prequel to ALIEN, at least set in the same universe, half-expecting the Nostromo to turn up in one of the exterior space shots or John Hurt to make a cameo in one of the bar-room scenes.

I probably seem very scathing about OUTLAND being some bastard love-child of ALIEN, but I don’t really intend to. I really quite like OUTLAND, it’s dirty, lived-in future with normal joes working in space is great, and there’s a real charm to it’s nods to ALIEN. It reminds me now of a kind of science-fiction cinema resigned to history (although it was temporarily resurrected in EVENT HORIZON, ‘homage’-fans). What doesn’t help OUTLAND is that while it was remaking much of ALIEN visuals-wise, it was of course remaking a western, HIGH NOON, at the same time. It’s as if Hyams had read reviews of STAR WARS describing it as a western in space and decided that if he remade HIGH NOON and it looked like ALIEN then he couldn’t lose. Hyams was no hack, and OUTLAND is probably his best film, it’s just unfortunate that he seemed to follow trends rather than set them himself. His later 2010, while naturally borrowing from 2001, also shared design credentials with BLADE RUNNER (‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead). I suppose you could argue that Hyams remaking HIGH NOON in space was indeed trendsetting, as it pre-figured by some twenty years the methods of modern Hollywood.

The cast works very well, Sean Connery is reliable as ever, back when he was still trying to shake off the ghost of Bond. The late, great Peter Boyle is excellent, and James B. Sikking and Frances Sternhagen are good support. This was back in the days when a cast could be over the age of 30, still headline a film and not all look stunningly beautiful thanks to surgery. The score is vintage Jerry Goldsmith (he had a fantastic habit of elevating average films with his scores) and the photography (by Hyams himself) is suitably atmospheric, showing off the sets very well. The fx are very good, pre-cgi. 

Watching it as a warm-up film before BLADE RUNNER, I really enjoyed it, pleasantly surprised by the quality of its production design and it’s refreshingly ‘adult’ themes about narcotics and crime and it’s lived-in future. The film has actually aged quite well over the years, probably much better than other minor sci-fi films of the period, and I often wonder wistfully at what a ‘proper’ sequel to ALIEN directed by Hyams might have been like, the guy certainly had the eye for it.

So anyhow, the auditorium was pretty much deserted, just a handful of shadowy figures in there with me and Andy watching these science-fiction films on a wintry afternoon. OUTLAND ended and after a short break BLADE RUNNER started and I was in heaven. And then about thirty minutes into BLADE RUNNER one of those shadowy figures a few rows infront stood up and shuffled out and never came back. He had watched OUTLAND and then walked out during the greatest science-fiction film yet made. Gob-smacked, I couldn’t believe it, distracted for the rest of the film wondering why the guy left, and never came back.  It’s funny as you get older, the things you just don’t forget, and that guy, whoever he was, I’ve never forgotten. Maybe he got mugged walking back from the gents. I mean, he had to have a good excuse, yes? I’ve seen some bloody bad films at the cinema but I never walked out of a movie, I always stayed until the bitter end. Hell, I saw SLIPSTREAM right up to those bloody balloons at the end. I wear that fact like a badge of courage.

So anyway, I bought OUTLAND on DVD in a sale the other day. Might watch it tonight, can’t wait.

One thought on “From the Archives: OUTLANDish Good Fun (January 2007)

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Ha! You’re lucky you got to see it. I was too young for a AA-cert film in 1981, and never saw it until years and years later. I had the fotonovel, though: a large scale edition by Richard J Anobile (who also edited, yes you guessed it, the Alien fotonovel).

    Mildly interesting anecdote. My wife and I watched Outland and Breaking Glass on Blu a couple of years ago, the first two feature films shot by DOP Stephen Goldblatt. We were very impressed by his work, particularly on Outland. A friend of mine was going out with his sister, and we were invited to their wedding, so I was very excited to meet him and ask him about his work on the film.

    However through SHEER RANDOM LUCK, I happened to read online that although Goldblatt is credited with Outland’s photography, it was actually done by Hyams himself, and the then-unknown Goldblatt was hired as a fall-guy in case the in-camera FX photography (see the opening shot for an example) didn’t work out, and the budget went up as a result.

    Phew. Glad I didn’t go in asking about that one on the day.

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