Outland (1981) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Even in space, the ultimate enemy is still man.

Outland is more than just a Western set in space as many have described. It is also a step on the road to making sci-fi films even more popular and bringing about larger action elements into the genre.

First Impressions

The trailer for Outland looks as if murders are being committed on a mining operation on the second moon of Jupiter and Sean Connery is the man in charge of stopping them. A lot of dead bodies appear to be piling up. It gives off an Alien vibe with the dirty mining town, the space suits and the general look. Can James Bond stop the killer before more people wind up dead?

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays


Outland title card.

The Fiction of The Film

At some time in the future, human corporations have discovered a rich vein of titanium ore on the third moon of Jupiter (not second as the trailer mentions), called Io. Continental Amalgamate runs Con-Am-27, a mining facility that is extremely successful. During one shift a miner named Tarlow (John Ratzenberger) believes spiders are in his space suit and vents it to the vacuum of space, killing himself instantly. William O’Niel (Sean Connery) is the new Marshal to Con-Am-27, having also brought his wife and son. He is introduced to the men by Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle), the general manager, and also reminded that things will be fine as long as he doesn’t make waves.

The next day a worker gets into the elevator to the mine without a pressure suit and dies on his way down. For unrelated reasons, Carol O’Niel (Kika Markham) takes a shuttle back to the space station, looking to book passage back to Earth so that Paul (Nicholas Barnes) will be able to have a life breathing “real air.” Shortly after, a third man named Sagan (Steven Berkoff) is seen shooting up some sort of drug before going crazy and attacking one of the station prostitutes. O’Niel and his Deputy, Montone (James B. Sikking), are able to get access to Sagan just before Montone shoots the drugged out man.

O’Niel is sure something strange is going on so he visits with the station doctor, Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) to get information about other recent deaths. She provides information that deaths have risen in the past year shortly after Sheppard took over. They discover an amphetamine-like substance in Sagan’s blood called polydichloric euthimal. It allows users to work harder than normal, but causes a psychotic break after approximately 10-months of use.


The mining facility of Con-Am-27, located on Jupiter’s moon Io.

Through further investigation and surveillance, O’Niel discovers that Montone is working with Sheppard, and that two men, Spota and Yario, are helping to receive and distribute the drug. A fight ensues in the cafeteria and O’Niel captures Spota, who is killed in custody before the Marshal can get further information. Returning to his office O’Niel finds Montone strangled in a closet as well as a coded message from the Deputy with instructions on where to find the drugs.

Narrowly avoiding being garroted by Yario, O’Niel finds and destroys the drugs. He then confronts Sheppard in his office but gets nowhere other than a warning from the manager, who then contacts his “boss” on the space station to send two more men. O’Niel only has 70 hours until the shuttle arrives with the killers. He asks his new Sergeant, Ballard (Clarke Peters), to help but he, like most of the men, are reluctant to get involved. O’Niel looks to the miners for help, but is told that he’s the one that’s supposed to protect them.

Carol calls and says that passage to Earth has been booked and will he join them. He says he can’t as he must take care of this issue first. O’Niel continues preparing for the assassins arrival. The shuttle arrives a little early and the men immediately begin hunting him, shooting him in the shoulder. Dr. Lazarus offers to help him, and he gives her instructions to maneuver the first one into a passageway which he vents to space. Donning a space suit and going outside he takes care of the second one, but is blindsided when a third man–Sgt. Ballard–attacks him. O’Niel stops him as well, returns to the station to punch out Sheppard and boards the shuttle so he can join with his wife and son on the trip back to Earth..

A whole machine works because everybody does what they’re supposed to. And I found out I was supposed to be something I didn’t like.” – Marshal William O’Niel


The atmospheric and technological look of “Outland” is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” from two years prior.

History in the Making

Outland was a film that was attempting to do a little something different by putting together a number of existing ideas in a new setting. Apparently director Peter Hyams wanted to make a Western, but was dismayed by people he talked to. They told him Westerns were dead. He soon realized that of course Westerns aren’t dead, they’re just being made in outer space now. So he took a Western story line, swapped out the desert town, for a space colony and attempted to make a new type of sci-fi film. Unfortunately the film doesn’t really pack that much of a punch. The retread of older ideas into new territory, in this case, is just not enough to elevate the film beyond a mediocre storyline.

However it wasn’t a complete bust. It was a slightly successful film, making back a little over what it cost to film, and it was also the return of Sean Connery to science-fiction after his weird 1974 film Zardoz. Here Connery played a much more normal sort of character and is the biggest draw in a cast of character actors. Francis Sternhagen, Peter Boyle, & James Sikking also provide enjoyment, but perhaps Sternhagen stands out the most as the abrasive doctor that never gets involved, but who eventually finds a reason to stand up.

What most viewers may recall is that the film shares many similarities with the 1952 Fred Zinnemann Western, High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. It’s not a direct remake, or as obvious as Battle Beyond the Stars with in its allusions to The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai, but the themes still exist. Outland also pulls themes and design elements from other films and genres besides the Western. This cross-pollination of styles was becoming more prevalent in sci-fi film by this point in the 80s, and could be a hit-or-miss-proposition. If anything, Outland suffers from slower pacing and the inability to suspend disbelief as to the final, inevitable outcome.


Sheppard runs a profitable mine, where workers work hard and play hard.


Neither Westerns nor the hybridization of genres was anything new to science-fiction films. Stories like Westworld, Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek’s “The Spectre of the Gun” episode, and to a certain extent Battlestar Galactica all make use of conventions of the prototypical Western in one way or another. Outland has the mining town, a new Marshal that’s trying to prevent the lawless from harming the citizens, gunfights, and a final showdown. All these elements stem from the template that High Noon provides. But on top of this are a number of other genre elements from both sci-fi and cop films that make their way into the film. These additional elements help Outland from feeling like a complete Western rip-off.

The first, and maybe most obvious, are the parallels to Ridley Scott’s Alien. From the opening titles, which seem to mimic the title design of that 1979 film, to the spacesuits and lived-in, industrial atmosphere–there are many in-genre similarities. But that’s only the first third of the film. As Connery’s character becomes familiar with the workings and corruption at Con-Am-27, the film switches from an outer space story to a gritty cop film. Modeled after the gritty cop dramas of the 70s, like The French Connection, O’Niel must use his best police work to discover who is providing drugs to the mine workers. He tracks down the bad guys, has a chase through the population ending with a messy arrest, and then finds the drugs, which are being smuggled in inside beef carcasses.

From there the film switches to the conventions of High Noon, where a Marshal tries to get assistance from the local populace before a killer can come for him. In the end when no one will help him, he does the job himself, and then quits in disgust. Outland prevents itself from becoming a one-note rebrand of a Western in outer space by merging these other elements. It doesn’t do it as smoothly as Star Wars does–in its blend of genres and styles–but it’s enough to make a slightly more interesting film than it might have become.


O’Niel starts his investigation with the abrasive, yet likeable, Dr. Lazarus.

Societal Commentary

Outland does have a little bit more going on thematically than some of the other sci-fi films that Sci-Fi Saturdays have looked at recently. That’s unsurprising really since the themes of High Noon are pretty meaty. As some may be aware the original High Noon was a metaphor for the Communist witch hunts and Hollywood blacklisting of the 1950s. Outland doesn’t carry over much of that thematic structure, but instead chooses to focus on a town rife with corruption and the one man who can, and will, stand up to it. O’Niels convictions put him in direct contrast to Sheppard, who chooses to be a negative force, and with Montone, who chooses to do nothing even knowing what is happening.

It’s unclear if O’Niel is a completely moral character or just more of a neutral person that is finally nudged into doing right. In looking at why he was assigned to Con-Am-27 two weeks previous, it could be that it was a job that no one wanted. It could also be an assignment that he was handed since he’s the type of person that tends to piss people off. If he is a morally constant man then this probably rubbed his superiors the wrong way at some point, and garnered him the assignment. A case could be made either way. Just as it could be interpreted that he didn’t actually flush the drugs he found, and said he did just to get a rise from Sheppard–to see what the manager would do. Either way, good cop work!

The film doesn’t paint a positive picture of the future of mankind. Sure the technology has enabled us to move from mining Earth for its resources, to a moon of Jupiter, but man is still man, whether it’s on Earth or in Space, The tagline from the trailer, “the ultimate enemy is still man,” is making a play on the familiarity of Alien (and similar films) where man encounters untold horrors in space. But the need for man to elevate oneself while stepping on others is a constant thing, the film shows. Moving into space and doing something that could potentially advance the society is just another rung that certain unscrupulous individuals can use to get ahead.


The Marshal and the Doctor discover a new chemical element in the dead men’s blood.

The Science in The Fiction

Much care seems to have gone into creating a number of scientifically accurate, or plausible, elements in Outland. According to a piece of trivia in IMDb, the planet Jupiter can be seen in certain scenes with a thin ring of ice surrounding the planet. The ice ring had been discovered two years before the film was released, when the NASA space probe Voyager I flew by the planet Jupiter in early 1979. So this was not something that was necessary or even widely known, but shows that the filmmakers are paying attention. Additionally the space suits and the setup of the mining rig seem to follow certain ideas of standard Earth-based mining as it could be done in outer space.

Outland does take some liberties with the dramatic decompression of the victims. The film shows victims inflating and exploding (like Dr. Kananga in the James Bond film Live and Let Die), presumably due to the pressure inside the body trying to equalize. However, according to a Harvard writeup, that is unlikely to happen. While dramatic and convenient to the plot, since there would not be enough of a body left to autopsy, these things are more fiction than fact.

Another interesting choice for the filmmakers is to ground the world of Outland in a more realistic frame by using conventional guns instead of laser guns. One might expect the Western of outer space to have laser rifles and lots of futuristic looking space war (as Moonraker had done previously), but the use of conventional firearms served another purpose. The inherent dangers of decompression coupled with bullets from real guns created its own kind of tension that was presumably well thought out. Since the third act climax takes place outside with space suits, the stakes were all too real for either character to get shot, have their suit rupture and become a Jackson Pollock painting 553 million miles from Earth.


The effects shots, especially in the third act, help create a new style to an old story.

The Final Frontier

Readers would be hard pressed to find an audience member that thinks Sean Connery is actually in danger of being killed in this film. Unlike High Noon, where it’s completely possible that Gary Cooper will be shot and killed by the returning gang, Outland seems more like a standard good guy/bad guy film rather than a subversion of genre standards. At no time does it really seem like Connery’s O’Niel can be killed, or won’t succeed in his mission. However, Hyams does add in the possibility that Sternhagen’s doctor, who doesn’t stick her neck out for anyone, will get killed when trying to help O’Niel. Since she’s the only one that helps him stand up to the bad guys, that becomes a distinct possibility and does add a touch of drama into the otherwise bland third act.

This was Peter Hyams’ first true sci-fi film. His 1977 film Capricorn One, which deals with a manned flight to Mars is more of a thriller and doesn’t really deal with any science-fiction ideals (since the flight is a hoax). He would go on to make several other sci-fi films that were received equally or better as well as working with Connery again on the police drama The Presidio. He would direct the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s blockbuster 2001: A Space Odyssey called simply 2010, as well as the Jean-Claude Van Damme time travel/action film Timecop, and the laughable adaptation of the Ray Bradbury story, A Sound of Thunder. Sean Connery would also return to the genre several times in the 80s, with Highlander and Highlander II, including later in 1981 with Time Bandits.

Outland was an important step on the road to the sci-fi action film of the 80s. It helped to develop a look and feel that would become important to other films, while also setting up the idea that genre crossovers were not just some fluke, but something that could, and should, be explored. It also stepped up the action elements, making them not just space-action moments, but making it feel like any other action film (whether that’s war, cop, or adventurer). All together it doesn’t set Outland apart from the pack too much, but does provide a foothold for future films to elevate from.

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