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.’
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:
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.
"George Lucas had referred to as the ‘used universe’."
Has George Lucas ever 'said' anything worthing hearing?
Good riddance Lucas from Disney you unappreciative finger-pointer, Jar Jar creator. He was paid $4 billion and he couldn't be thankful when talking to pervert Charlie Rose. May George Lucas and Charlie Rose get married eventually and share their years with each other discussing how they were mistreated during the decades-long pampering marathon they both enjoyed.
Go jam Jar Jar in the dark side of the back of your pants George.
Return of the Jar Jar to his rightful place.
Thank you for reminding me of Outland Ati.
That was another one I missed as a kid because Dad gave it a thumbs down for language. I got that a lot with the movies I wanted to watch right before bedtime.
My pleasure, Ingeniero. So it's time to watch Outland. Some people say it serves as a brilliant Alien spin-off.
Can you find the material to do a seed post for The Martian, a movie which I think could also fit in the broader Alien universe?
That is a great observation ignorantGuy. I thought the same thing when I saw the helmet feeds in The Martian.
I just played the opening of Outland and it would be hard to tell it apart from Alien if you were only listening. If you wait 5 minutes, the scene looks as if they are on the Nostromo. I'll be able to finish the film later.
Very buff topic Ati.
'the scene looks as if they are on the Nostromo'
That is true.
Another movie to see. It is tough to keep up.
That said, Ingeniero, I can agree a lot about Lucas! Honestly, the movie I enjoyed most from him was the overlooked jem THX 1138
I watched Outland last night.
The cast is great and so is the story. The film really does look like it is set during the time the Nostromo was operating in Alien. This film could be included in the Alien universe because I saw no contradictions with canon that I remember. And it would fit perfectly with the Alien: Covenant Origins novelization because there are no aliens in Outland.
In many cases, a 3rd party company will operate an industrial plant for the owner...so, the company name on everything in Outland could certainly fit within a 3rd party contractor operating the mining operation on the moon Io for Weyland Industries. Also, the bar in Outland reminds me of the bar in Blade Runner (1982).
Thank you again for reminding me of the film Ati.
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