Classic Science Fiction Science: Outland


The science fiction movie Outland has been described as a reimaging of the western classic High Noon set in space:


The setting is Io, which is the closest large moon of Jupiter, despite the claim of the trailer that it takes place on the second. If you count all the known moons no matter how small, Io is fifth now and was fifth in 1981 when the movie came out. That’s nitpicking, especially when Voyager I probe (aka “V-GER” from Start Trek the Motion Picture), only discovered three of the tiny moon in 1979.

No, there are two real science issues that undermine this otherwise moody and interesting movie and make it impossible to suspend my disbelief watching it today.

Do I need to give a spoiler warning for a 30+ year-old movie?  Consider yourself warned…

First, the special effects gimmick for the movie is exploding people.  Miners commit suicide by going outside the base into Io’s essentially non-existent atmosphere, where, because of low pressure, they explode.  This is not what happens to people exposed to vacuum (so says myself, Geoffrey Landis, and informed others).  This is a feature of the movie and central to the plot, and totally wrong.

A more fundamental second problem is that Io is right in the middle of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts.  A surface based colony makes no sense.  Anyone going out on the surface at all makes no sense.  These intense radiation fields were known in the 1970s and Voyager 1 was specifically designed to operate in that environment.  There were better choices than Io as settings for Outland.

Big-budget movie productions seem more inclined to use science consultants today than in the past, but in limited capacities, and they don’t seem to stop these errors from continuing to occur.  The errors are fun to point out as educational moments, I think, and I’ll post more in the future.

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