Alien Seed: Outland

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Any biography of Alien that fails to mention its antecedents It! The Terror Beyond Space and Forbidden Planet would fail as a genealogy. Likewise, Alien has its place in film’s tree of life, having spawned many imitations itself, with eminent titles like Contamination (1980), Inseminoid (1981), The Beast Within (1982), Forbidden World (1982), Creature (1985) and a completely unrelated Alien 2 (1980) among them.

These movies tended to feature biomechanical knock-offs stalking young women through darkened corridors and were, naturally, far more exploitive than the art-house predilections of Alien. While the latter subversively had a man become the focus of an extraterrestrial rape and birth, titles like Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (1981) opted to show Taaffe O’Connell nude, lubed, and assaulted by a gigantic insect on camera. Corman’s film is interesting not because it is exemplary but because it helped James Cameron break into movie making (Robert Englund, Sid Haig and Grace Zabriskie notably starred.) The film was touted by the studio as “a spellbinding tale in the Alien tradition”, but was described perhaps more modestly by Cameron himself as “Roger’s paean, to be charitable, to Alien.”

Though Galaxy of Terror is often discussed at length regarding Alien, another film that is arguably even more interesting is Peter Hyam’s Outland (also 1981), specifically because, firstly, it is not low-fi schlock like much of Alien’s ‘progeny’, and also because its foundations lie not in the sci-fi/horror genre but in the Western, most especially Frank Zinneman’s classic, High Noon (1952). It swaps the sand and wood of High Noon however for a very Alien-esque mining facility on Jupiter’s moon, Io. Sean Connery plays the station’s sheriff, Marshal William O’Niel, who discovers a plot concerning drug running and bouts of psychosis amongst the facility’s workers. Investigating, he is drawn into a battle against the facility’s management company, Conglomerates Amalgamated. As O’Niel closes in on the conspiracy he finds himself abandoned by the station’s inhabitants and left to the mercy of incoming Company hitmen. There is not, unlike the endless concatenation of Alien knockoffs, a monster.

The High Noon influence is quite obvious from any cursory plot synopsis, but the film’s similarity to Alien strikes as soon as we’re granted a look at the film’s environments. Actress Frances Sternhagen, who played O’Niel’s only ally, Dr. Lazarus, recalled that the sets were dank and dingy, with Hyams’ explanation being that the mining facility needed to look lived in, an aesthetic that George Lucas had referred to as the ‘used universe’. It can be seen in the grubby interiors of the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars before it was rendered again in Ron Cobb’s designs for the Nostromo a few short years later, but this look  not did originate with either of those films, instead being preceded by Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, where it was intended to be a jokey counterpoint to Kubrick’s glossy 2001: A Space Odyssey. “[The future is] not lucite domes where people glide back and forth wearing jump suits, and everybody is perma-pressed,” Hymans explained. “The only consideration was the performing of a task, and that’s true of all the designs for Outland. Function is the only criterion.” Compare these comments with Ron Cobb’s design philosophy: “My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer. I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function. If I’m to arrive at a cinematic spacecraft design that seamlessly preserves, as in this case, the drama of the script, the audience has to experience it as something impressive and believable.”

However, though it’s easy to get the impression that Hyams saw Alien and deliberately replicated it, Hyams himself denied that he was influenced by Ridley Scott’s film. “No,” he told Starlog magazine in 1981, “I was not influenced by Alien at all. This is a very dissimilar movie. Alien did not really focus on the characters. This movie is about a bunch of people that I think you get to see sides of that you don’t ordinarily get to see in films.”

His statement seems undercut by various factors: for one, there was considerable talent shared between both films: Martin Bower, Nick Allder, Bill Pearson, John Mollo, and Jerry Goldsmith all helped manufacture the look and sound of both, though Goldsmith was hired primarily because he had worked with Hyams previously on Capricorn One. Most telling is the allegation that Outland’s design office was adorned with a notice that read, ‘Make this film look like Alien.’

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There are other, perhaps serendipitous similarities between them: Outland’s Dr. Lazarus was originally written as a man, just as Ripley was. “I decided it was absurd for a picture set in the future to be unpopulated by women,” commented Hyams. Frances Sternhagen addressed her character’s likeness to Ripley in an issue of Starlog, saying, “There is some similarity between the two roles. Both characters were independent thinkers doing a job, and both were more concerned with doing the job than anything else. There is also the fact that both at one point had to decide to do something we hadn’t planned on doing that is very dangerous. I think those are the main things. Characterwise, we are different.”

There are perhaps many other similarities between the two films. Some, like the malignant Company, the grubby interiors, and the blue-collar, oily-fingered workers with their propensity for casually-worn flight suits and corporate emblems, are egregious. It’s worth watching simply to recognise pieces of the Nostromo being replicated sometimes wholesale throughout the colony, though it is different enough to be more interesting than a mere Nostromo clone; instead it feels like the craftsmen behind Alien applying that film’s aesthetic to a wider universe. Outland can easily be watched as a spin-off, a short story within the Alien universe about more smoky conference rooms and weary, exasperated spacefarers being beset by corporate malfeasance.

Curiously enough, Outland seems to have rubbed off, perhaps serendipitously, perhaps simply due to archetypical similarities, on the Alien sequel. “A mining operation like Con-Am #27 represents a frontier,” Hyams said, “and frontiers strike me as sinister, dangerous places of enormous hardship.” These comments concerning the mining facility and its occupants mirrors Aliens’ storm-harried colonists, who are described in James Cameron’s script as being “pioneers in a very unforgiving climate” who must “work very hard to get a toehold” but are fortunately imbued with “a stubborn optimism characteristic of hardy frontier types throughout history.” Hyams also describes the motivation of his miners as being “willing to put up with Hell for the chance to make some big quick money,” just as we hear Newt’s father, a prospector, proclaim in Cameron’s movie upon discovering the derelict: “Folks, we have scored big this time!”

But if Outland had any definitively tangible bearing on Aliens, it was the repurposing of the Con-Am spacesuits for the salvage team who find Ripley:

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There was also, finally, a Heavy Metal adaptation:

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Outland, though competently made and certainly entertaining, is not a seminal film and is usually remembered for its likeness to Alien and High Noon rather than its own merits; it is still fondly recommended and watched by those who appreciate the look of the movie, which did better to emulate Alien than the multitude of imitators that followed throughout the 1980’s.

The film barely recouped its costs at the box office and critical response was lukewarm. Harlan Ellison for his part called it “a bastardisation of someone else’s original idea” and explained that it was the “nasty reality” of allowing “dabblers, fools, and perverters” to have charge of a film that dared to mime greats like High Noon and Alien, the latter of which he called a “classic of terror” – Ellison was also unimpressed with John Carpenter’s The Thing for much the same reasons. Ellison, who at the time of the film’s release also rebuked Sean Connery in the pages of Starlog for his recent harrying of a journalist, recalled a conversation with Ridley Scott where Scott mentioned the time was ripe for a ‘John Ford of science fiction’ to emerge onto the film scene. Hyams, invariably, was not it.

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5 Comments

Filed under Alien, Aliens

5 responses to “Alien Seed: Outland

  1. Good read. You forgot to mention that Outland was also novelised by Alan Dean Foster!

  2. BillTed

    “His statement seems undercut by various factors…”

    Thats becasue hyams is full of isht and thats why all his movies are so bad.
    I remember seeing this in the theater and just checking out on it mentally when Connery “tricks” one of the assassins into shooting his gun at a giant wall of windows and getting sucked into outer space.

    Have you ever seen 2010?
    Thats peter hyams running on all cylindeR.

  3. Pingback: Alien Seed: Event Horizon | Strange Shapes

  4. I am convinced that Outland is in the Alien universe.

  5. honogurai

    “But if Outland had any definitively tangible bearing on Aliens, it was the repurposing of the Con-Am spacesuits(…)”
    And the title credits which Aliens borrowed a lot from.

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