‘Outland,’ or When Science Fiction Becomes Sordid Reality

Representaive blecch, from “Outland.”

Representaive blecch, from “Outland.”

I came across, again, the film “Outland” the other day. I remembered this as an average piece of science fiction that tried to ride the coattails of “Star Wars” in the early 1980s. And I wanted to remember its having compelling qualities, like “Blade Runner,” which came out a year later. Certainly the movie’s star, Sean Connery, is worth watching.

Sadly, I’m not sure the movie holds up after 30 years. What struck me was how the criminal conspiracy at the heart of the plot seemed so commonplace. Perhaps it was less so at the time? It is hard to remember what we were all thinking back in 1981.

Sean Connery holding his spot in line for the toilet.

Sean Connery holding his spot in line for the toilet.

The story goes like this. Sean Connery is a space cop, or something. Really, he is dressed like a modern-day retiree: cheap hat with garish patch on the front, bright white tennis shoes, etc. The first time you see him head to toe, you expect to next see several blue-haired women push past him in a rush toward a restroom.

But let’s call him a space cop. His post is a mining complex on one of Jupiter’s moons that is owned by a big, I guess, multigalactical corporation or whatever. And after a while, Mr. Connery’s character grows suspicious about a series of mysterious deaths.

Really, the deaths are more spectacular than mysterious: they’re suicides by explosive decompression. Indeed, this is less a space-bound police procedural than the indulging of a gruesome science-fiction fetish.

When Mr. Connery’s character takes a closer look (spoiler!)……he realizes that the victims were all miners who were abusing an amphetamine to improve their production. An unfortunate side effect of this impressively effective amphetamine is that users occasionally crack up: as in the deaths already mentioned, and another in which a miner menaces a hooker before being shot to death.

Mr. Connery’s character eventually learns that the mining company itself is supplying the drug, and is well aware of the side effects. Apparently, in the future, giant corporations are exactly as venal as they are today. Pay is depressingly low, and the rare bonuses are tantalizingly high.

Naturally, this snooping around alarms the corporation’s leadership, which seems to be beholden to/indistinguishable from an organized crime syndicate. As expected, the bad guys mobilize to silence Mr. Connery’s character. And as expected, he outwits them in a “High Noon”-style climax, dispatching more than a few by — you guessed it — explosive decompression.

As I was watching, I waited for a plot development that would justify the reason for the big-screen treatment — apart from the director’s predilection for filming fake blood in simulated zero gravity. It never came. The whole movie was just a story about a grim endeavor that encourages eager participants to abuse their bodies for the slim hope of monetary gain.

Where have I heard that story before?

Oh, yeah. The National Football League.

You know the N.F.L, right? When players aren’t denting their brains into ossifed nubs, they are menacing their teammates, friends and wives — in dozens of adjudicated cases every season. It is a career of glorified violence in return for riches that many, if not most, will squander long before their medical problems become severe.

Nothing perhaps captures the poignant futility of a professional football player better than the pathetic flash of surprise that pops onto the face of an unknown actor as his character’s insides spew outside on the big screen.

Maybe I ask too much of movies — after all, “Outland” gets a 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

It won’t enlarge ones perceptions of life by a single millimeter, but neither does it make one feel like an idiot for enjoying it so much.


Still, I think a more sinister motive could have been conceived.

For instance, here’s a proposal for a movie that I offer to any screenwriter, free of charge. A big drug company announces an innovative painkiller. The medical community is so astounded by its promise that the few critics who point out how easily the new drug can be abused are thoroughly ignored. Naturally, things go awry, drug abuse becomes commonplace, crime skyrockets, society threatens to fall apart, etc.

Now here’s the sinister part: the company in this scenario also makes the most popular drug used by rehabilitation clinics to treat addicts. And to top it off, it is the largest benefactor of the professional organization for the doctors who run rehab clinics.

It’s the original “they get you coming and going” setup.

…No wait. Here’s the really sinister part: It’s all perfectly legal:

For some critics, the company’s multiple roles in the world of painkillers is troubling.

via Addiction Specialists Wary of New Painkiller – NYTimes.com.