With space operas most assuredly in the forefront of public consciousness right now, it's easy to imagine studio execs clamoring to hear pitches for the next big sci-fi space epic. I imagine it was much the same after the original release and success of Star Wars and Empire, in an era when films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien were also killing at the box office and Paramount was going into production on Wrath of Khan.
Around the exact same time that Peter Hyams decided he wanted to make a Western. Hyams’ previous film, Capricorn One - which was all about NASA faking the Mars landing - was the most successful indie release of ’78. Despite this success, he couldn’t get this next movie going. No one was interested in making Westerns at that time. Westerns were, for all intents and purposes, dead.
So what better way to get your Western greenlit than to dress it up in sci-fi clothes and set it in outer space? Oh, and it also helps to get James Bond as your lead. I’m talking of course about Outland, an overlooked gem of a space Western sometimes referred to derogatorily as "High Moon" for its heavily-borrowed High Noon story structure, which is no more egregious than, say, Lucas borrowing from the films of Kurosawa, or Fistful of Dollars borrowing from Yojimbo. Or Tarantino borrowing from - well, throw a dart and try not to hit a classic filmmaker Tarantino hasn’t ‘homaged’ all over.
In the Zinnemann classic, the old marshal of a one-horse town is hanging up his badge and heading out with his new wife when he finds out that Frank Miller - a nasty piece of work he brought to justice - has been pardoned. And he’s on his way into town on the noon train. And he most definitely will be calling on the marshal for his revenge. The film plays out in almost real-time as the clock ticks down and ex-marshal Will Kane tries to round up a posse to face Miller and his boys. Technically, he isn’t the marshal anymore and this isn’t his problem. But the new marshal isn’t due until the next day. If he leaves and no one stands up to these hoods, the town is helpless. But! If he leaves there might not be a problem at all, since it’s Kane he wants. At least that’s the mindset of the townsfolk, who one-by-one turn Kane down with various reasons that range from thinly-veiled cowardice to outright ‘it ain’t my problem, bud’ brusqueness, leaving him to face the murder party - and his fate - alone.
No one asked Will Kane to be a hero. In one of my favorite lines of the film his wife even tells him he doesn’t have to be a hero for her, to which he incredulously replies: “I'm not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you're crazy.” It’s unclear whether Kane is standing up for what’s right because it’s what’s right, or if it’s the inevitability of Miller’s coming after him Terminator style - whether it be now or later - that drives him to stand and fight. Ultimately Kane faces down the enemy, leaving the town of Hadleyville in disgust and disdain, throwing his tin star in the dirt at his feet while the townsfolk watch sheepishly, saying nothing.
It’s a pretty dark view of humanity.
Hyams' view is even darker.
In Hyams’ version, Sean Connery plays the titular character, Will O’Niel - a space marshal shifted around backwater burgs like Con-Am 27, a small mining colony on Jupiter’s third moon, Io. He isn’t making many friends in his new post as marshal, much like we’re led to believe he wasn’t that popular in his previous posts due to a big mouth and not knowing his ‘place’. In the first five minutes, his wife and kid skip off on the first ship out to Earth, sick of this life of dreary space stations and closed quarters (we’ll see her a few more times though, as our sad sack marshal listens to her Dear John letter at night, further defining his isolation in this dark and dingy space-world).
You can see the Alien influence in the production design - the worn feel of the station and the claustrophobic tunnels and crew spaces, full of rustbelt realness rather than the iPod austerity of 2001. Also in the vein of Alien, the mining outpost is run and managed by a corporation - Conglomerates Amalgamated. This is definitely a place you end up at rather than aspire to go. The colony manager, played by a stoic Peter Boyle, says as much, giving a ‘let these boys blow off their steam, we work hard, we play hard’ lecture to our marshal on their first meeting. The only entertainment here being the central canteen where the miners are seen chain-smoking and swilling drinks around hookers both real and holographic. It’s of note that there’s an overabundance of references to hookers by almost every major character, leading me to believe the world’s oldest profession will find no fear of an end in the frontiers of space, at least as Hyams sees it.
When folks start walking onto the moon’s surface sans spacesuits or pulling their own air hoses out screaming about bugs, manager Sheppard writes it off as a regular spate of space madness and cabin fever. Connery is the only one who thinks this strange string of ‘suicides’ is anything more than that, and soon uncovers a drug ring conspiracy that is a pretty open secret among the miners and corporate bigwigs.
Part of the fun of Outland is Hyams hiding a mystery thriller within the outline of a last-man-standing Western. In the first half of the film, O’Niel uncovers the source of the deaths and follows a trail of suspects to a synthetic drug that raises worker productivity, thus raising the corporate bottom line. More productivity means more bonuses, which means everyone’s happy. Except for the percentage of workers - and a pretty high percentage at that - whose brains are fried within the year.
This search also leads to one of my favorite female supporting characters in any movie, Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lazarus, the salty dog of a ship’s doctor whose take-no-shit attitude and droll demeanor are a perfect foil for Connery’s uptight and dry O’Niel. She discovers that the miners have been cracking up in higher and higher numbers in the last year, and all of the bodies get jettisoned quickly thereafter. O’Niel snags a blood sample before the last victim is given his burial at sea (why Sean? Why would you draw a blood sample by jabbing someone directly in the jugular??) And they find evidence of the brain-scrambling drug by mashing buttons and staring at a screen saver, as far as I can tell. Connery narrows down some suspects by profiling ex-cons on old-timey Google-Siri technology and goes into full stakeout mode, discovering that the one man he was starting to trust on the station, his sergeant, is in cahoots with the station manager in bringing in the drugs to the colony. At the very least he’s on the payroll to look the other way.
“This is no place for heroes” is his sergeant’s response when confronted by O’Niel over a game of squash. This is the first instance of the echoing of Will Kane’s internal struggle in High Noon. The second instance occurs soon after, when O’Niel confronts the station manager. “Just what we need here, a goddamn hero” he says, swinging his golf club. All of these confrontations are quite cordial, gentile even, with death-threats a foregone conclusion and nothing to make much of a fuss about, everyone justifying his or her involvement in a corrupt system and expounding on the complete lack of a difference that one man can make. Who in this world is even left with an unsullied hand that you’d raise that red flag for? Even O’Niel’s closest ally, Dr. Lazarus, sees no use in having a dog in this fight. “No one here will stick their neck out for anyone.”
In a chase sequence that manages to feel both claustrophobic and grand, allowing us to see even more of John Stears' amazing world-building (SFX designer and Academy Award winner for his work on Star Wars, who worked with Connery on all 6 Bond films) and work from model builder Martin Bower (Supervising Model Maker on Alien), O’Niel captures one of Sheppard’s dealers. Sheppard retaliates by garroting the sergeant in his gym locker and killing the captured dealer while he hangs in zero-G space jail. Another hat tip to production designer Phillip Harrison for this terror-inducing imagery. Sheppard then sends his man after O’Niel, who dispatches him in a meat locker (which, I don’t even want to think about the transportation issues hauling huge sides of beef to Jupiter posits and the health hazards inherent therein) and flushes the shipment of drugs - which look like so many Jell-O shots shoved in the beef slabs - before reporting directly back to Shepard. Whether to gloat, to show he’s still standing, or to say he can’t be broken - it’s unclear. Perhaps all three.
This is where the High Noon comparison really has merit. Shepard calls in two hitmen through the corporation who will arrive on the next freighter from Jupiter. O’Niel overhears the hit being ordered and tries to rally anyone he can to his cause. First he turns to his own men, then to the miners and colonists in an open plea at the space saloon. Their cold stares let him know he’s entirely alone. He watches the clock tick down with each defeat.
Interestingly, it's here we see the largest thematic departure from High Noon as it draws even more heavily from its plot structurally. Will Kane was standing up for his own personal freedom from a man he feared would track him to the ends of the Earth. He was operating on a fear he’d be looking over his shoulder his whole life, and defending a town whose people left him alone in this fight out of cowardice. Will O’Niel stands up to test his own moral mettle against the ocean of apathy and greed surrounding him, in a system that expects him to fail. He’s a classic Western hero—pre-dating the era of the morally ambiguous anti-hero we’re so used to seeing today, who becomes the very thing they wish to hunt, hang, kill, or overcome.
Outland goes to a much darker place, not just saying ‘don’t be a hero’, but openly asking ‘why even bother’? High Noon’s tagline is ambiguous about the moral high ground: “The story of the man who was too proud to run”. Outland’s “The ultimate enemy is still man” outright tells you it doesn’t matter if there is one.
Moreso than High Noon, Outland lets us deeper into the psyche of our marshal to answer that question. “Do you think you’re making a difference? Do you think what you’re doing is worth losing your family for?” He shrugs. “They send me here to this pile of shit because they think I belong here. I want to find out if they’re right.” And with that, O’Niel soldiers on, with gruff and dogged somberness, fighting the good fight for the coldly indifferent or openly hostile populace he’s standing up for.
When the shuttle does land, an effective cat-and-mouse chase through the empty station ensues (everyone has called in ‘sick’ today, leaving the place feeling abandoned and isolated) leading to the inevitable hitman showdown with O’Niel. The inside man double-cross against the gorgeous backdrop of Bower’s mining colony models is not to be missed, and utilized ground-breaking SFX and compositing technology for its time. It should still probably never be seen by Neil deGrasse Tyson, however, given the multiple laws of physics that are being broken to bring the violent and gory deaths about, but it is top-notch in terms of design and execution.
In the end O’Niel stumbles - battered but not beaten - into the packed bar to confront Shepard. With an ‘Ah, what the hell’, he lays him out, this one punch his last act of defiance before leaving this world of corruption behind. He doesn’t arrest him, because what good would it do. It’s clear he knows this doesn’t change a thing in the grand scheme. Is it a hollow victory? It depends on your interpretation of victory. The corporate machine will keep moving. A new station manager will take Shepard’s place, a puppet of the corporation. Wheels and palms will keep getting greased. Good people will keep looking the other way. But he’s proven he’s not the man they thought he was, as he heads off to meet his family on the last flight out of Dodge.