In Outland, Marshall O'Niel has been transferred to a new space station in the far reaches of deep space. Shortly after he arrives, he begins to notice some strange things that are going on such as the fact that the miners are going crazy and killing themselves. From just that description, it would seem that this movie is a relatively classic, cut-and-dry science fiction film. Outer space, space stations, that's all very sci-fi. However, it is not as simple as that. Outland frequently borrows elements from the western genre, using those to create its definitive storyline and a sense of tension that never seems to fade away.
One of the main elements that crossover between the genres is the main character. Marshall O’Niel definitely falls under the definition of the western hero, bearing similarities to both Josey in The Outlaw Josey Wales and Ethan in The Searchers. He has a very determined, almost obsessive way of handling the case that is presented to him. No matter what, even under penalty of death, he refuses to back down and accept the deaths that have been occurring all around him. This is similar to Ethan who will not stop searching for Debbie and to Josey who refuses to give in to the Union. They're all stubborn men, something often pointed out by the other characters in their films.
In addition, O'Niel has a somewhat gruff, hardened exterior. He doesn’t let people in and tends to be very skeptical. Outwardly, he doesn't show a great deal of emotion, even in situations where fear and pain are warranted. There are some exceptions, some moments where we are given insight into what he is feeling, but for the most part, this is sheltered, as is the case with many western heroes.
However, like Josey, he does have some softness to him, particularly in regards to his family and his friends. Most of what he does is so that he is able to get back to his wife and child, so that he is able to be with them.
Stemming from this are the companions. In both genres, there tends to be one secondary character that follows the main throughout his journey. In Josey Wales, it is originally Jamie and then, after he dies, it becomes Ten Bears. In The Searchers, Martin fills this role. In Outland, O’Niel’s main companion is the doctor, her interference actually saving his life on more than one occasion.
Though this is more general, another similarity comes from the established situation. O'Niel is the new sheriff in town, someone who has come in to drive out the corruption. He is a force of good within a sea of bad and it becomes his job to remove all of the bad that has built up. This isn’t necessarily a present characteristic in the two western movies we have watched, but within the genre, this plot device is used pretty frequently.
Lastly, one of the most important characteristics of Outland that’s relatable to the western genre is the importance of the setting. Though the western setting means something very different than the setting of Outland, both are significant to the development and establishment of the plot.
Within this movie, outer space is used to isolate the story, trap the characters. If this were set somewhere different, there would not be the sense of danger that comes with being so far away from anyone and anything else. Also, because the setting is so integral to what happens, much of the plotline would have to change. The setup as to why the people have begun to go insane would no longer make sense.
This is similar to the westerns in that the setting is so closely tied in to everything that happens that without the frontier, the movie cannot really be considered a western. It is a characteristic that throughout film history, has always been a part of the genre's definition.
To further relate this to Outland, the vast expanse of land found on the frontier can also lend a sense of isolationism to the western. Just as in Outland, some westerns build on the idea that the next chance at reaching civilization is quite possibly days away, using that to create a driving sense of tension.
Within Outland, the science fiction elements are handled pretty indirectly. Instead of making “science fiction” the focus, it’s almost a secondary characteristic. It is there more to facilitate the very human storyline, not to drive it. Once the setting is established, once the storyline is set up, the science fiction elements almost seem to take a step back, allowing things to play out as they will.
Most of the science fiction technology is treated as commonplace. Not a lot of time is spent explaining what different pieces of equipment do or how they work, largely because they are not directly relevant to the plot line. Other than the fact that the movie is set on a spaceship within deep space and that this isolation allows for the story to get underway, the technology is not treated in a way that puts it at the forefront of the film.
The only element that really figures into the plot is the setting. The location of the film at the edge of space is what causes the workers to take the drug. The amount of confinement they experience, the monotony, causes them to begin to go stir-crazy. As a result, the entirety of the plot is set into motion.
Following this, it is the spaceship, or the space station, that actually plays the most critical role of any science fiction element. Most everything happens as a result of the spaceship, because of what it represents within the film. As mentioned before, the setting is what pushes everything into motion.
Outland actually presents the spaceship rather negatively. Whereas some movies use it to represent freedom, escape, Outland uses it to represent entrapment and isolation. It is out on the far reaches of space, two days from the next point of civilization. It is dark and industrial, a depressed mining station that as a whole, seems rather derelict. Because of all of this, the space station actually seems incredibly dangerous, confined, and it gives a sense of, to take from Alien, "In space, no one can hear you scream."
The way the station is established within the movie highlights this claustrophobic sense of isolation even further. The corridors are narrow and closed in, seemingly bearing down on the occupants. There is the potential for death within every moment, a single break in a piece of equipment leading to a sudden, painful death. Everything about it seems precarious, ominous, and through it all, the audience knows that it is impossible to escape. The space station is a cage, the complete opposite of what it represents in many science fiction films.
There is a great deal of tension throughout Outland, tension that never really rests, just builds and builds.
One of the main ways this build is created is through the use of the countdown clock. In the movie, O’Niel is left to wait for the arrival of the men sent to kill him, unable to escape, and so he attempts to prepare himself. All along though, we are left with the knowledge that no matter how much he prepares, it might not be enough. We are left with the knowledge that no matter what he does, he might die. Finally, the countdown hits zero and the climax begins.
This build is mirrored in the western genre by the countdown to high noon. Though it wasn’t specifically used in either The Outlaw Josey Wales or The Searchers, many westerns use this convention. A time is set for when two characters are going to go to battle, a time when the audience knows that one of them is most likely going to die. The closer and closer it gets to high noon, the tenser everything becomes.
It’s this building idea that ultimately, a character may not make it out alive that drives the tension.
Also, the idea of being hunted is a crucial part of the tension in Outland, mirrored in The Outlaw Josey Wales. In both, there’s a period of time in which the main character is pursued by someone who wants him dead. For Josey Wales, the union chases him throughout the movie. For Marshall O’Niel, there are assassins after him. Though it is for a shorter period of time in Outland, there is still the question of Are they going to catch him? What happens if they do? Is he going to die?
Following from that, there is an inability to escape, only to run. Even though Josey has the entire country through which he is able to run, there is this idea that runs throughout the movie that he is never safe. There are union soldiers after him that we know will most likely never give up, and sometimes, there are even civilians after him for the reward money. He can’t escape his past, no matter where he goes, not until he kills the union soldier at the end of the film.
This is an elongated, slightly altered version of what happens at the end of Outland. When the assassins come, there is also this knowledge that he’s not able to escape. He can either kill them, or they’ll kill him. They won’t stop and there’s nowhere for him to go. He can run, hide within the station, but ultimately, just as in Josey Wales, he’ll be caught. Therefore, the continuous thought throughout these films that escape isn’t possible, that there’s no way out unless the situation is completely resolved, also helps to build the tension in the movies. It’s either kill or be killed, and the audience never knows which way it will end up.
Through all of this, Outland establishes itself not as a science fiction film, but rather as a western that takes place in space. As a result of the many western conventions it uses, Outland does have an inherent tension that builds throughout and it does have an action-filled, mysterious plot line that never seems to come to a stop, but at the heart of it all is a western hero and that is what has established this film as one of the best cult movies ever made.