Fun Flix for Free: Outland (1981) and Southern Comfort (1981)
by James Byron Wood
In these times of paid streaming sites competing for your entertainment dollar, it’s nice to know there are still great films to watch for free online. This column will help you locate classic films, cult films, indie films, documentaries and overlooked gems.
Peter Hyams’ Outland came out two years after Ridley Scott’s Alien, and it could exist in the same universe. It’s got similar looking sets, similar looking spacesuits, and a great Jerry Goldsmith score. Instead of space truckers, we get space miners. Instead of bloodthirsty Xenomorphs providing the threat, we get a villainous general manager, corrupt cops and hitmen. And the unnamed company in the film might as well be Weyland-Yutani because its employees are just as expendable.
Sean Connery, post-Bond and six years before winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Untouchables, plays Marshal O’Niel (yes it’s spelled that way), a lawman heading for the end of his career as the new company marshal on Io, third moon from Jupiter. Peter Boyle, post Young Frankenstein and pre Everybody Loves Raymond, plays Sheppard, the initially smarmy and ultimately sinister jerk who runs the mining operation and tells O’Niel that he works his men hard and let’s them play hard. He basically wants the Marshal to give them a little freedom to act up.
The company miners are acting strangely, leading to violent incidents and deaths. I won’t spoil the mystery of why this is happening, but after O’Niel figures it out he’s determined to end it, which puts him at risk of both ending his career and his life. At that point the film turns into High Noon in space as the clock ticks down to O’Niel’s impending doom.
Amid all this toxic masculinity comes two great supporting performances from female actors: Frances Sternhagen plays the cranky and cantankerous Dr. Lazarus, who after Connery threatens to “kick (her) nasty ass all over this room”, helps him solve the mystery and becomes his only ally when everyone else lets him twist in the wind. English actress Kika Markham brings emotional depth to the role of O’Niel’s wife Carol, though most of her scenes are played on a computer screen. The film also features early performances from James B. Sikking, Clarke Peters and John Ratzenberger, before they became more famous on TV for respectively, Hill Street Blues, The Wire and Cheers.
Outland is a great sci-fi action movie with chase scenes, fight scenes and some interesting twists and turns as O’Niel tries to outwit his pursuers. It’s got a witty script and great performances. Peter Hyams would go on to direct 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. While he’s no Kubrick, he has a firm grasp of how to direct sci-fi and a great eye for casting actors who make it down to earth and believable. Outland is streaming free now on Tubi.
Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort is set in 1973, in Louisiana’s Cajun country. Nine National Guardsmen go into the swamps for a weekend of practice maneuvers. After they hit a river they can’t cross, “borrow” some canoes and get yelled at by the angry Cajun canoe owners, one of the guardsmen fires some blanks to scare them off. That’s when all Hell breaks loose and they find themselves lost in unfamiliar territory with hunters hot on their trail.
Keith Carradine, star of many great Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph films, is PFC Spencer, a laid back city kid who knows a little high school French. Texas bad-ass Powers Boothe is CPL Hardin, the new guy from El Paso, who became a chemical engineer to get away from rednecks. Fred Ward, who broke his nose three times boxing before becoming an actor, is CPL Reece, the only guy who brought any ammo for the guns. Blade Runner‘s Brion James, the greatest “eye actor” of all time, plays the Cajun trapper they take hostage.
Comedian and actor T.K. Carter is pot smoking Pvt. Cribbs, who gets the funniest lines and the grisliest death. Lewis Smith, who later played Perfect Tommy in the 80’s cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, is PFC Stuckey, the trigger happy knucklehead who starts all the trouble to begin with. Former NFL player Carlos Autry, Jr. (billed as Carlos Brown) appears as Cpl. “Coach” Bowden, who gets more and more emotionally unstable as the plot progresses. Les Lannom is Sgt. Casper, trying to hold things together despite being in way over his head. Julliard trained Franklyn Seales plays Rifleman Simms, whose “I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m not supposed to be here” is the most poignant line in the film. And Peter Coyote, who has the most interesting Wikipedia page I’ve ever read, is Staff Sgt. Poole, whose early demise sets off the angry, bickering, violent power struggles that allows these actors to chew scenery like they haven’t eaten since being cast.
Walter Hill is one of the greatest action directors in the history of motion pictures. He gave us The Warriors, 48 Hours, The Driver and Extreme Prejudice, as well as westerns like Wild Bill, The Long Riders, and Geronimo: An American Legend. But IMHO, Southern Comfort is his most interesting movie and definitely one of his best. Stream it for free on You Tube and see if you agree.