Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Forgotten Science Fiction Flicks - Outland (1981)

High Noon was a fifties Western in which the marshal (Gary Cooper) had to face a gang of killers alone. They are arriving by train, at noon and the townsfolk refuse to help him. In the end, he confronts them alone, with just the help of his wife, a pacifist. 1982's Outland is set on Io, a moon of Jupiter. Sean Connery is the marshal of a mining outpost and a group of hired killers are approaching on the resupply shuttle. His deputies are corrupt or useless, the only aid from a jaded female Doctor. High Noon in space. That's the comparison that always gets made from reviewers and I wanted this out of the way as soon as possible.
Marshal William T. O'Niel (Connery) is sent to Con-Am mine 27 on Io. Despite the hostile environment, production is breaking records and the Manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) warns O'Niel that his people like to play hard. His deputies are led by Montone, a Sergeant (James B.Sikking of Hill Street Blues fame). Carol O'Niel (Kika Markham) has had enough of these places and takes their son Paul and heads back to a waystation for the long journey back to Earth.
One of the miners goes crazy, ripping open his spacesuit and another goes down an elevator/airlock without his suit – another turns psychotic and takes a hooker hostage. Before O'Niel can make the arrest, Montone blasts him with a riot gun. Determined to investigate these deaths, the Marshal twists the arm of Company Doctor Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) and a drugs ring is uncovered – a synthetic stimulant called polydichloric euthimal. This stuff makes you work like a horse... and eventually sends you psychotic. O'Niel goes after the dealers and finds the conspiracy of silence goes right up to Sheppard.
After the marshal destroys the new shipment, Sheppard then calls his supplier requesting a hit on O'Neil. Cannily, the Marshal is monitoring the transmission and seeks help, but he's on his own – save for Doctor Lazarus. The resupply shuttle arrives, with it two hitmen (Including P.H. Moriarty, 'Hatchet Harry' from Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels). Going 'Outside', O'Niel tricks one of the killers into a corridor, placing an explosive charge outside and killing him with decompression. The second hitman is prowling around inside a hydroponic greenhouse when he sees a movement – and fires, blasting a hole through the outer skin and out he goes.
So far, O'Neil is ahead, but a shot comes from nowhere. It's Ballard, a deputy, and he's crossed the fence. O'Neil climbs up a massive solar array, across a catwalk to a point above the prowling figure of the rogue deputy. It's a matter of time before he's spotted and killed, so he leaps into the low gravity void... landing on Ballard and knocking his gun down the vast slope. Desperately, the two struggle until they go over the side of the walkway and fall gently down to crash into another lower down. Ballard goes over the side, but is strong – maybe artificially so. Desperately, the Marshal manages to get hold of Ballard's air hose and yank it free, the body falling free until it hits one of the capacitors and is fried. O'Neil lays Sheppard out and leaves him to the inevitable reprisals from his supplier. He thanks Doc Lazarus and sends a message to his Wife and Son. He'll be joing them for the flight home.

Writer/Director Peter Hyams (Capricorn One) wanted to do a Western, the studio didn't. Placing High Noon in space was inspired; all the key elements work well and transplanting stories across genres is more commonplace than you might realise. The performances are all there, too; Connery is flinty, without being unsympathetic as the washed-up lawman, Boyle makes an unlikable baddie and Sternhagen's Lazarus is well placed as an over-the-hill quack with a heart.
I have to make time here and mention Megasound and Introvision. Megasound?; Warner Brothers' system involved speakers and amps behind the screen to provide booming bass for sound effects. An offshoot of the seventies experimental sound systems such as those being developed by Dolby, it was basically a gimmick. It only made it onto a handful of releases due to the cost to cinemas of installing the equipment needed. Introvision, however, was more than just an enhancement. A front projection technique that allowed camera-operators to match up the effects shots with the live action in the camera. Before this, the two would be composited and only seen after the film was back from the processors. For the extra brightness needed, Scotchlite screens were used – you've seen similar material on road signs and high-visibility clothing. (To see just how bright retroreflective materials are, shine a pen-laser at a road sign at night.) By mounting the camera at a right-angle to the screen and using a beam-splitter to convey the image to the lens, a perfect match was achieved. If you're wondering why the actors, props etc weren't lit up with parts of the background image, the answer is pleasantly simple. The lighting on the actors (etc) had to be bright enough to match them with the brilliant background – and that washed away elements of background that would have otherwise ruined the effect. Ingenious. Sadly, computers made the system appear obsolete and it was last seen on The Fugitive. Rather distastefully Hyams took on Stephen Goldblatt as cinematographer for the sole reason of needing a scapegoat if the relatively untested Introvision system failed. Goldblatt held his tongue – he needed the work – but never forgave Hyams.

ABOVE/BELOW: Jim Steranko's impressive comic adaptation was featured in Heavy Metal 
Innovative and familiar by turns, Outland has been largely forgotten by all but the fans. Hopefully, you'll now help redress this injustice and spread the word...

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