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‘Outland’: A Sci-Fi Western That Proves Men and Women Can Be “Just Friends” in Space.

If you’ve never seen the 1981 Sean Connery Space Western Outland, you should.

Peter Hyams, coming off the success of the mother of all conspiracy movies, Capricorn One, directed this taught sci-fi thriller set in the not too distant future on Jupiter’s third moon IO (eye-oh.) Outland follows a company mining colonies newly sworn in Marshall O’Niel played by Connery, who quickly realizes the rash of sudden onset insanity induced suicides are the result of the hyper amphetamine given to the miners so they can work for days on end. O’Niel immediately bumps heads with the company General Manger Sheppard, deftly played by Peter Boyle in an amazing low-key performance. O’Niel finds himself outgunned and alone going up against the establishment as he tries to bring justice to a place that knows none.

As far as movie plots go it’s fairly straight forward, and it’s third act mirrors (very deliberately) Gary Cooper’s iconic High Noon. Most film buffs and sci-fi fans will enjoy this even after multiple viewings. But, despite all the cool surface things that make Outland a fine addition to any film library, there’s an element to the film that’s often overlooked: O’Niel’s relationship with his only friend in the Godforsaken mining colony played by Frances Sternhagen.

Sternhagen plays Doctor Lazarus, the exhausted, snarky, and all around wise ass company doctor on the base. Sternhagen is perhaps best known as Cliff Clavin’s ever patient mother on the television show Cheers. She was also widely known for her brilliant stage career and is the winner of two Tony awards. In an interesting piece of movie trivia John Ratzenberger, who would later go on to create the roll of Cliff on Cheers has a small part in Outland with his future TV mom. Lazarus is definitely the smartest person in this no horse space town and far and away the best person to have a drink with. Lazarus discovers O’Niel is very much her equal when she tries to bulldoze over him only discover he’s not like everyone else on this rock, dumb.

At O’Niel’s behest she helps him figure out a drug is making the miners go crazy and bridges the gap for the overall exposition of the story. However it’s the “relationship” with the Marshall that’s a real story unto itself, especially as there is none. That is to say there is no romance, no innuendo, and no sexual tension. One could easily argue any such relationship would be wholly inappropriate in this situation. After all, O’Niel’s wife leaves him early on in the movie when she wisely sees how bad life was going to be on IO. She leaves him a heartfelt “Dear John” letter in the form of a video message informing him although she still loved him, she and their young son are headed back to Earth with or without him. If that sounds harsh, it not.

O’Niel’s wife, played by Kika Markham, is actually a good person who is clearly doing what’s right. She realizes immediately life on IO would be miserable and all the events that follow more than prove her right. Although saddened O’Niel isn’t really surprised by her departure. Would Connery find solace in the arms of another woman after he was dumped, especially in a place where woman are scarce to say the least? Sternhagen seems to be one of the only rare non-prostitute woman on the remote mining base of 2100 people.

Another argument could be: why insert a love interest in the middle of a thriller space mystery playing out nearly in real time? Of course none of this stopped Hollywood before and this is Sean Connery. A harsher argument could be the casting of Sternhagen herself, a woman, dare we say it the same age as Connery, takes her completely out of romantic consideration. Her character hits this last point home with her self-deprecating sense of humor by often describing herself as “a wreck.” Sternhagen was 51 at the time.

Sternhagen’s Lazurus isn’t someone you settle for, she’s someone you pursue.

She steals every scene she’s in and provides much needed levity to an otherwise heavy film. Sternhagen allows Connery’s O’Niel a less guarded persona which enriches and adds depth to his character. She even proves herself brave as literally the only person on the base willing to assist O’Niel in defending himself from the professional assassins dispatched by Sheppard to murder him. Her performance and character are truly a marvel which is probably why she won the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress beating out both Maggie Smith for Clash of the Titans and Helen Mirren for Excalibur the same year.

It’s no secret sci-fi as a genre is usually the first to break down social barriers and taboos. A mere sixteen years before Outland was released Star Trek’s Captain Kirk kissed Uhura on what was, at the time, the first interracial kiss on TV.

Two years later Duane Jones proved a black man could lead an action horror film in the George Romero classic Night of the Living Dead.

And of course in 1979’s Alien, Sigourney Weaver proved a woman could save the day in a place where no one can hear you scream.

I’m not certain Peter Hyams was addressing the male/female plutonic relationship head on purposely or simply lucked out casting an actress that made the material better than expected. Truth is, if the movie was made today they would have either cast Scarlett Johansson opposite Russell Crowe’s O’Niel, or simply cast a man, most likely Josh Gad.

Regardless of his intention in casting Sternhagen, Hyams ended up showing the world the future isn’t too far from the present. After all drugs would still be a problem, corporate greed will still be a problem, unrealistic management goals will still be a problem, but in the future it’s still possible to go out for a laugh with a female equal without anything getting weird.

Then again if everyone were as cool as Frances Sternhagen nothing ever would be.

Outland was a modest hit upon release but later gained a cult following on home video and cable. It remains an important film in sci-fi as it is set in a possible reality not a fantasy one. The hired guns use shotguns, not ray guns. It’s chock full of great performances including the exceptional Clarke Peters (later of HBO’s The Wire) and Hyams regular James B. Sikking who play members of O’Niel’s Marshall team with questionable loyalties. Look out for Stephen Berkoff playing a crazed miner holding a prostitute at knifepoint while high on the drug. Outland also boasts a knockout score by Jerry Goldsmith. I highly recommend you check it out.

 

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