Io is the third moon of Jupiter and there is a mining operation situated on its surface. The miners there have a tough job, but one thing making it tougher is the strange prevalence of a new "space sickness" which sends the sufferer into a psychotic episode which more often than not ends in their deaths. Just recently, a man cut open his space suit after getting it into his head that there was a spider in it with him: needless to say, in a vacuum, he didn't last very long. When the new Marshal, O'Niel (Sean Connery), arrives with his family he is unaware of the danger waiting him - or he is until another life is claimed...
It looks like Alien without the Alien, and it plays like High Noon in space, but how derivative was Outland looking back? Scripted by director Peter Hyams, the film was science fiction for adults, which meant no laser guns or outer space dogfights between the goodies and the baddies, but unfortunately it also meant not much fun to be had: more trashy sci-fi elements might well have brightened things up a bit. And bright is not a word to use for this, because it's filmed in a near-constant gloom presumably intended to make it all appear more authentic.
Although it simply made most audiences pine for the presence of a ravening alien beast to shake up the lumbering drama. So it was more of a thriller than taking advantage of its location in the solar system to be a space opera, at least up to the point where the hitmen arrive in the final twenty minutes. Before we reach that finale, Connery's O'Niel (or is it O'Neil? His name badge doesn't seem to be able to make up its mind, probably because hardly anyone spells O'Neil like that) has to glower through the encroaching menace of the company's need to keep its employees going through chemical assistance.
You see, what has been sending the miners round the bend is the company's illegal supplying of drugs to them, drugs which might well enhance their performance but don't do their mental health any good. No sooner has O'Niel arrived than his wife has left him, which he appears to take in his stride - it's difficult to tell from Hyams' characterisation - so we have to take it as read that he's upset for most of the film. This is down to the more pressing concern that there is nothing short of sanctioned murder happening on Io thanks to the requirements of big business.
If you can make anyone out in all that crepuscular murk, then Frances Sternhagen as resident doctor Lazarus stands out as having the most personality, cranky as it is. Even Peter Boyle's sinister qualities are somewhat lost amongst the leaden production design and camerawork, which are arranged as if to say, the darker it gets, the more seriously we want you to regard all this. Eventually, the powers that be grow tired of O'Niel's snooping (with the help of a handy computer which answers any question you care to type in) and the heavies are called to the mining station. There's a High Noon-style digital clock to remind us how long we have to wait for the showdown, and it's the best part, with the hero displaying entertaining ingenuity in his methods to outwit the bad guys (although you wouldn't explode if you were exposed to a vacuum, it's a neat effect). It's not enough to make up for the rest of the film, but at least Connery gets to strut his stuff at last. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.