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Alien Nation

Fox Home Entertainment

Starring James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, and Terrence Stamp

Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon
Directed by Graham Baker

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"You humans are very curious to us. You invite us to live among you in an atmosphere of equality that we've never known before. You give us ownership of our own lives for the first time, and you ask no more of us than you do of yourselves. I hope you understand how special your world is. I hope you understand how unique a people you humans are. Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to us that so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves."

— Sam Francisco, a.k.a. "George" (Mandy Patinkin), Alien Nation

For some reason, I've always enjoyed the above quote: It's the only bit of dialogue in the sci-fi/buddy-cop flick Alien Nation that sticks with me in any way. It's not great writing or anything — it's just that, as delivered by Patinkin in potato-head alien makeup, it radiates the sort of earnestness and broad-brush philosophizing that you don't find much in geek cinema anymore (save in Gattaca or Contact, the only decent scraps of "Message Sci-Fi" in the past several years). "George"'s line, uttered during a drunken bonding session with his bigoted partner Sykes (James Caan), is something you might hear in '60s Trek or one of those low-budget jobs from the '50s — it's sci-fi comfort food, you know?

Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to me that Alien Nation is such an aggressively mediocre, by-the-numbers action flick. It's a triumph of high concept, after all, imagining spacemen who crash-land on Earth as just another immigrant class trying to get ahead — but this killer idea, Caan, Patinkin and the great Terrence Stamp are funneled into a TV-series plot involving bickering cops on a murder case. (I think it's no coincidence that this movie did spawn a TV series, BTW, which you can occasionally catch on the Sci-Fi Channel in syndication; TV was probably the plan all along.)

Anyway. Here's the breakdown:

*          *          *

I. The Story

It's 1993 — in this 1988 film, "the future." I'm reminded here of something William Gibson told me once in an interview: "Well, that's kind of the poignant thing about science fiction is that it does date — it all has kind of a 'sell-by' date." If that's true, then "Alien Nation" is well and truly curdled.

A couple of years back (in 1991, still "the future") a flying saucer full of alien slaves crash-landed in the desert. Welcomed as immigrants, the freed "Newcomers" are stronger and smarter than humans (though we only get to see the "stronger" part), and they quickly form a significant American underclass — complete with their own L.A. ghetto, ethnic-slur designation, and bigoted abuse at the hands of the gendarmes. When a cop (Caan) loses his partner in a gunfight with some Newcomers, he teams up with America's first alien homicide detective (Patinkin) to catch the perps. En route, they uncover a plot by an alien socialite (Stamp) to introduce a drug problem into the Newcomer populace.

Yes, it's a terribly unsubtle race-relations allegory — written (by the improbably named Rockne S. O'Bannon) using a big, fat Rod Serling Metaphor Pencil the size of a horse's leg. Not that there's anything wrong with that: The ability to craft unsubtle allegories and get away with it is one of sci-fi's chief pleasures. But that's no excuse for a plot and dialogue that takes every possible opportunity to do the most proletariat-mollifying, obvious thing.

I'd imagine the following is the most succinct way to prove how clichéd (and ultimately uninteresting) Alien Nation really is:

*          *          *

II. The Been-There-Done-That Plot Points as Described in the Alien Nation DVD's Chapter Headings

I suppose these are spoilers, if you can in fact "spoil" a story this clichéd. My additional comments are in parentheses:

  1. They Have Landed
  2. A Shoot-out (in which the hero's partner is killed)
  3. Backup (Caan meets Patinkin; you may be surprised to hear that they initially don't get along)
  4. A New Partner (an awkward meeting in the chief's office! Astonishing!)
  5. One Big Gun (a variation on the shooting-range sequence found in every single '80s buddy-cop film)
  6. Finding Connections
  7. Asking Questions
  8. The Girlfriend (in which the gangster's moll — get this — tries to seduce the cop, the only difference being that the gangster's moll looks like she's had a mottled Easter egg Photoshopped onto her head)
  9. Drinking (the reluctant-partners bonding scene, quoted at this review's outset)
  10. The Beach (where the arch-villain, wearing a tuxedo, has his minions dispatch of an uncooperative subject)
  11. The Drug
  12. Drug Bust (in which our heroes are pushed "over the edge" and "take the law into their own hands")
  13. Metamorphosis (a showdown sequence set in — you guessed it — a shipyard, at night)
  14. Rescue (alien cop makes risky sacrifice, saves drowning partner, cements buddy bond)
  15. The Wedding
  16. End Titles

*          *          *

III. What's good? Anything?

(1) The title. It's a really good title. And there are some very big guns.

(2) The makeup's not bad, either — although Terrence Stamp, who's supposed to be a charismatic Newcomer with a shady double life, instead looks merely uncomfortable, like he has a small tricycle lodged in his transverse colon.

(3) The charming interplay of Caan and Patinkin. This isn't Caan's best work by a long shot, but he's got a genial smirk on his face throughout and makes for a fine slob; and Patinkin, encased in mummifying head latex and hulking body padding, is just likable as hell, nuanced, even — no easy feat, given what he's working against.

(4) The aliens have Americanized names plucked from history and pop culture. One henchman is named Rudyard Kipling. That's kind of funny.

*          *          *

IV. And the extras?

This is a nearly bare-bones disc, but what's here is sort of interesting.

  1. First off, there's a 6:40 Featurette, probably made to fill the broadcast gaps at HBO or something. It's a nice little time capsule from a slightly more naive time in movie marketing, featuring a description of Patinkin's character as, and I quote, "a boy-next-door alien." Caan also keeps calling the aliens "potato heads," with Patinkin piling on. Neither of them seems to be taking matters very seriously.
  2. Then there's a 3:35 Behind the Scenes clip, seemingly raw broadcast video dumped onto the disc, of English director Graham Baker (wearing a black fedora and Cosby sweater and looking like a first-class middle-aged dork) directing a couple of action scenes. Best moment: Caan razzing Baker when the director "acts out" a scene Caan is about to perform: "I don't have to do it like that, do I?"
  3. There's a murky but scratch-free trailer with the following voiceover (performed by that gravely-tongued voiceover fellow everyone used in the '80s): "Inside an alien world of violence, desire and power, beyond their darkest fears, lies an evil beyond imagination." Well, not really.
  4. There are also three TV spots and five "Fox Flix" original theatrical trailers: The Abyss (widescreen), Aliens (pan-and-scan), Enemy Mine (pan-and-scan), Independence Day (widescreen), and, best of all, the supremely goony, pretentious trailer for Zardoz (pan-and-scan) — which features a booming voice yelling "ZARDOZ!" over and over again, plus the immortal line "Go forth ... and kill!"

That's it. Save your money for Zardoz, or something.

— Alexandra DuPont

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