A lone law-man is stationed in a rowdy mining town on outskirts of civilization. He’s the only person brave enough to uphold justice in the face of danger and corruption, the only one who can stop those dastardly villains. It sounds like a pure, classic Western— except for the fact that it’s set in outer space. Outland (1981) blends elements of the Western and science fiction genres to tell a story about right and wrong, justice, bravery, and people’s heads exploding from exposure to the vacuum of space.
There are many identifiable characteristics of the Western throughout Outland. The Western’s most defining feature is it’s setting (the Old West), and though it may seem like a futuristic space colony is about as different as it could be, the setting in Outland in fact has significant similarities to that of a Western. The industrial mining settlement on the frontier of space is strongly reminiscent of the kind of Wild West town that sprang up as settlers rushed west looking for gold and silver. It even has a revamped saloon, where the final confrontation and shoot-out takes place. Unlike in a Western (where a cowboy can ride out of town at any time), everyone in Outland is trapped within the mining facility, dependent on its pressurization and breathable air, and yet even the natural environment plays a similar role as that of a Western—space could be compared to a harsh inhospitable desert. One article we’ve read stated how in Westerns, the railroad has consistent meaning—representing the taming of the West and the link back to civilization—whereas a space ship in a science fiction story can be assigned any number of meanings. In Outland we see the shuttle back to the space station (and subsequently Earth) function much like a railroad in a Western, as the single tie to civilization. Western character types can also be identified in Outland; there is the idealistic sheriff (Sean Connery’s chief of security character, “O’Neil”), the frontier doctor (gruff company doctor, “Lazarus”), the corrupt moneybags (chief administrator “Shepard”), and the hero’s devoted wife and child (who are less important to the hero than his ideals). Though the iconography and setting associated with the Western are absent, characters and themes make Outland very much a Western in spirit, if not technically a pure Western.
As one article stated, a key aspect of a science-fiction world is that it strives to make the viewers really believe, rather than asking them to suspend their disbelief (as with fantasy), and this requires a blend of the familiar and the alien. Outland manages this balance skillfully, limiting the futuristic (“alien”) technology to advanced computers, interplanetary travel, synthetic drugs, and a light-up racquet-ball court, leaving it with a strong basis in reality. A theme common to many sci-fi stories is technology as the downfall of humanity, which I definitely see reflected in Outland. Technology’s negative connotations are clearly apparent from the detrimental side-effects of a synthetic drug, which are central to the story. We also see that space travel has allowed a world where corrupt industry rules, and a boy can grow up never having set foot on Earth. The mining facility itself is an example of the negative power of technology. As mentioned earlier, a space ship (or in this case, a space station) can be presented as positive, negative, or neutral, and in Outland it is definitely negative. Both visually (with long dark corridors and claustrophobic spaces) and in terms of story (trapping O’Neil as assassins close in on him, the space colony is an ominous force. This feeling of being trapped (one of the film’s biggest narrative departures from the Western) is a major source of suspense. In the tradition of sci-fi thrillers, O’Neil is trapped with his attackers, searching and hiding in the dark, labyrinthine space station, creating a kind of suspense very different from the Western-style standoff suspense of who will shoot first?
Outland is a true blend of genres, uniting disparate traditions of storytelling to create a film that is intriguing and compelling.