November’s Science Fiction Theatre: Outland

“You’re supposed to protect us! You’re the police! It’s your job! Where are your men?”

Director Peter Hyams wanted to make a Western. But he was told that the genre was dead, that nobody would make one, and nobody wanted to see one. His ingenious solution in the face of such adversity – transport the story to outer space. Inspired by the mood and visuals of Alien, and thematically similar to Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon, Outland is the story of the great frontier, of drugs, of the dangers of space exploration, but ultimately of an unwanted sheriff in a lawless town.

The story takes place on Io, Jupiter’s moon. Federal Marshall William O’Niel (Sean Connery) arrives on mining outpost ‘Con-Am 27’ for a tour of duty and soon finds himself investigating a series of grizzly deaths whereby miners have suffered extreme psychotic attacks and have seemingly gone on to commit suicide. With the help of Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Neil slowly peels back the layers of the outpost’s dirty underbelly, and discovers the dark secrets that have helped ‘Con-Am 27’ and its general manager Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) break all previous productivity records . . .

“There’s a whole machine that works because everybody does what they are supposed to. And I found out . . . I was supposed to be something I didn’t like” ~ Marshal William O’Niel

Hyams was no stranger to science fiction. In 1984 he took on the virtually impossible task of following up Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 with an adaptation of the sequel 2010. A pretty tepid affair, made all the more interesting because of the material, but let down by a slightly cringe-worthy alteration to the film’s end message (quite literally). But more importantly (as far as we’re concerned), back in 1978 he directed Capricorn One, a superb sf thriller, inspired in part by numerous Apollo conspiracy theories, about a fake Mars landing. Starring Elliot Gould and . . . O. J. Simpson, it’s a favourite around these parts and it’s only a matter of time before we screen it. Oh, and here’s some fun trivia – the mining company in Outland (Con-Amalgamate) is the same name given to the company that manufactured the defective life support system in Capricorn One.

The SFT original Outland poster, designed by Bill Elliot

An Outland novelisation was written by film-novelisation-writer extraordinaire Alan Dean Foster, and during the summer of 1981 a gorgeous comic strip adaption appeared in Heavy Metal magazine. The latter is now particularly hard to find (oh how we’ve tried), and artist Jim Steranko is pretty strict when it comes to putting his material on the internet. So, er, if anyone happens to have a copy, would you consider selling?

Rumours abound that a remake of Outland is in the works, news which these days strikes us as so inevitable that it’s hardly worth mentioning. What it does do however is make it even more important to join us next week, or dig the film out at home if you can’t, and enjoy a “tight, intriguing old-fashioned drama that gives audiences a hero worth rooting for” (Variety). And when that hero is Sean Connery, you know you’re in for a treat.

Science Fiction Theatre is a London-based monthly film club run by The Space Merchants, purveyors of classic sf in all its guises. Outland will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL on Wednesday 12th November at 8pm. Tickets are available here.