Alien vs. Outland

There was no intention on my part to watch both Alien (1979) and Outland (1981) one after the other.  That is, however, what happened.  I like both films, and as I mentioned in my blog entry noting the then upcoming release of Outland on Blu Ray (you can read about that here) I always felt that that film was heavily inspired, at least from a visual standpoint, by Alien as much as its plot was inspired by the famous western High Noon.

Starting a couple of nights ago I sat down and watched Alien from start to end.  The next day, I did the same for Outland.  While I’ve seen bits and pieces of both films over the years, I don’t think its much of an exaggeration to say I haven’t seen either film, from beginning to end, in perhaps two or possibly more decades.

Revisiting films is an interesting experience.  Sometimes, a movie that blew you away in your younger years simply doesn’t do much for you years later.  There are myriad reasons this might happen.  If you like action films, you have to realize that movies have become “quicker”, and their thrills have become bigger and bigger spectacles.

In the case of Alien, when I originally saw that film back in 1979 (or maybe 1980), it quite frankly scared the shit out of me.  The film was incredibly beautiful to look at, but its heart was as dark as could be.  I loved several things about it:  The dread of finding that lost alien ship and its deadly cargo.  The chest bursting scene (who didn’t?!), the revelation of what Ash was, and, of course, the surprise “hero” of the piece.

It’s hard today to point out how daring and fascinating a film Alien was.  Indeed, while many justifiably focused on the frights, there was a cleverness to the script and story that should not be overlooked.  Tom Skerritt’s Dallas, for example, was presented to audiences as the “hero” of the piece.  He was the captain of the ship, after all, and the commanding officer.  Despite his outward scruffiness, he looked and talked the part of the hero.  Yet in a very clever bit of screenwriting, it was his actions that may well have resulted in the tragedy that followed.  He was the one, after all, who ignored sterilization protocol and insisted the “infected” Kane be brought back into the ship.

The character of Ash was also a very clever piece of writing.  The big reveal of who he was, in my opinion, was every bit as memorable as the chest bursting sequence.  What an interesting, unique, and ultimately horrifying way to show a robot!

However, like comedy, the genre of horror often relies on “surprising” the viewers.  With the passage of time and the cribbing of ideas, often this element of surprise simply loses that uniqueness with the arrival of sequels and other movies in that vein.

In the case of re-watching Alien, I realized just how much damage that film’s sequel, Aliens did to the original work.  In Alien, you have the single creature mercilessly, stealthily, wiping out one cast member after the other.  In Aliens, we have the protagonists face an army of such creatures.  Suddenly, what was a stealthy being, a creature that hid incredibly well in the shadows and picked off its victims one after the other…a creature that showed evil malice and almost supernatural “hunting” skills, was reduced to the equivalent of an angry wasp.  The alien creatures buzzed around, getting swatted here and there, drawing fear from their numbers rather than evil intent.

Mind you, I’m not knocking Aliens as a movie.  I think it remains a terrific thrill ride.  However, while watching Alien for the first time in so many years it was difficult to get myself in that same frame of mind I had when I first saw it and the alien creature was such a unique and terrifying movie villain.  To put it bluntly, it was hard to once again feel terrified of a single creature attacking while, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but recall the army of such creatures faced -and defeated- in Aliens.

I still love Alien.  I still think it remains one of the greatest horror/sci-fi hybrids ever created.  However, I would be lying if I said that subsequent works haven’t somewhat diminished the shocks one originally felt while watching this film.

So, the next night I watched Outland.  Clearly, the impact of Alien, released only a couple of years before, was on the mind of the movie’s makers.  The visuals, indeed the film itself, could fit comfortably within the Alien universe, though it does not feature any alien creatures at all.

Sean Connery is Marshall O’Niel, a somewhat washed up man sent to the mining colony on Io (a moon of Jupiter) where he comes upon a mystery involving the apparent suicides of various miners.  As mentioned before, Outland’s story becomes a rather large “homage” (or, if you’re less forgiving, “rip off”) of High Noon, especially in the film’s last acts.  While the film was successful, I suspect the knowledge that it so blatantly used High Noon’s story framework made many dismiss it.  Today, the film isn’t nearly as well known as Alien, and it was only last week that the Blu Ray edition was finally released.  For those interested, the Blu Ray presents a beautiful picture and sound.  It is, however, a fairly “bare bones” release.  The only extras present are a theatrical trailer and director comments.  The director comments are worth checking out.  The previous bare bones DVD edition was apparently of very, very poor quality, so this is pretty much the first time modern audiences get to see this film in such nice shape.

And you know what?  It actually holds up after all these years.

Mind you, I was one of “those people” back then irritated by the High Noon parallels.  Upon re-watching the film, I was far more forgiving and just went with it.  What I found was a pretty exciting piece of action cinema, with Sean Connery delivering a damn good multi-faceted performance.  In fact, this could well be one of his more complete acting jobs, as he’s called upon to be alternately tough, vulnerable, desperate, sarcastic, and, yes, even on rare occasions quite humorous.  Frances Sternhagen goes toe-to-delightful-toe with Mr. Connery as Dr. Lazarus (I’ve got to groan at that waaaay too symbolic name!), his only real ally in the space mining outfit.  The movie builds its plot nicely, and the only bit of silliness the audience has to accept (and I’ve mentioned it in my previous entry) is that given the sensitive nature of this station, the idea that there could be any gun play at all is pretty damn ridiculous.

However, again, I could go with the flow and accept it.

As far as the visuals and effects, considering we are dealing with a thirty plus year old film, they remain quite good.  Yes, there are some effects that look a little creaky here and there but, frankly, there was very little to complain about.

In the end, watching Alien and Outland back to back proved an interesting experience and a definite blast from the past.  While one can’t entirely forget what came afterwards, it was interesting to revisit these two films which presented a decidedly darker view of science fictional worlds.