Outland (1981)

2012 #3
Peter Hyams | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 15 / R

OutlandI first encountered Outland in a similar context to a lot of people, I think, based on reviews and whatnot I’ve read; that is, as “High Noon in space”. For me it was in a module on Westerns during my Media Studies A-level, in the sense of “what defines a Western?” I subscribe to the notion that a Western has to take place in a certain time and place — because it’s in the name, isn’t it? — so something set in the future on a space station isn’t in the Western genre.

But, having said that, what if it then employs all of the genre’s tropes? With its desert-y settings, horses, stylised dialogue, and more, it’s hard to avoid the Western aspects of Firefly/Serenity; Outland, on the other hand, isn’t so overt. If you’d never seen High Noon, or if no one pointed out the thematic or storytelling similarities, there’s nothing here that would let you in on it (arguably) being a Western. So it’s interesting that it seems to dominate conversation about the film.

Otherwise, it has a lot of science-fiction-y things going for it too. Two years on from Alien, director Peter Hyams has adopted the same grungey, real-world, lived-in aesthetic for the mining outpost setting. It’s a style that doesn’t date (at least, not yet — witness Doctor Who using it multiple times in the past few years, for instance), which means that it doesn’t feel 30 years old. The plot, lifted from High Noon or not, is even more timeless: lone hero stands up to bad guys that no one else is brave enough to confront. In space, no one can hear you make a WesternIt works as well in space as it does anywhere else.

Thing is, though it’s well-made and suitably engrossing, the primary unique thing about Outland is that it’s set in space but has so many plot-tropes of the Western. That’s why that dominates the conversation: in many respects, it’s the most interesting thing about the film. A shame though, because I think it could stand without it.

4 out of 5

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