A premise like ALIEN NATION’s is as rare a mineral as unobtainium. It alchemically melds two seemingly unmixable genres (’80s cop thriller and sci-fi alien movie) in a way that organically lends itself to social commentary within pop entertainment. I wouldn’t say ALIEN NATION succeeds wildly in those goals, but it gets the job done and just the conception of it is so beautiful it can get away with coasting.
At its heart it’s a standard-issue interracial buddy cop movie. Like Dirty Harry and a million other movie cops, Detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan)’s partner dies, and he tries to solve the case with a new partner who happens to be from a different culture, and has a very different personality and approach to law enforcement. Like Tyne Daly in THE ENFORCER, Detective Francisco (Mandy Patinkin, DICK TRACY) is part of an advancement program to promote diversity, and is receiving rejection and resentment from the usual self-centered-backwards-afraid-of-change-knuckledragging-anti-progress assholes. Sykes isn’t any more enlightened than his bros, but he knows Francisco is on a case that might be related to the guys who killed his partner.
So Sykes says culturally insensitive things, insults his partner, makes a fool of himself, but starts to learn, they get to know each other, they bond with each other, he changes his perspective, starts to stand up against racism from the other cops, all while they go after the killers.
But Francisco is different from other cops who are different, because he’s not just a different race or gender from Sykes, he’s from a different planet. He’s a Newcomer, an alien. Three years ago they arrived in “an intergalactic slave ship,” but they’re genetically engineered to be highly intelligent and adaptable, so they’ve already integrated into human society much more than the ones in DISTRICT 9 did. They have large, bald heads with distinctive spots on their skin, but they’re humanoid so they just wear suits and ties and sunglasses and shit like anybody else, and they take on human names and jobs and try to fit in like any immigrant in America.
There are predominantly Newcomer neighborhoods. The Newcomer district of L.A. is referred to as “Slagtown,” which I think is a racist slur, but nobody seems to get offended by it. It’s not completely segregated. You’ll notice that there are some cool Earth people who live there or like to go there. They are over the fact that this is a sci-fi world, and they just go about their business, getting dinner, shopping, going to work. Not a big deal.
Also, corporate America has definitely caught onto this burgeoning demographic:
I wonder if that guy is a famous Newcomer athlete or dancer, or just a random model?
There are biological differences. Newcomers have two hearts. They get drunk off of spoiled milk. You have to punch them in a different place. And it turns out there’s a drug, ” a sweet indulgence from our past,” kept secret from humans. It is highly addictive to them, and a powerful, amoral Newcomer named William Harcourt (Terence Stamp, THE PHANTOM MENACE) has figured out how to synthesize it.
That’s one subtle, smart touch: they don’t stack the deck by making Newcomers all good guys. They’re just people. So the villains involved in this conspiracy are Newcomers, as are many of the street criminals and bar toughs that Sykes and Francisco get jumped by or try to get information out of. But most of the Newcomers are like Francisco, normal people who work hard at their jobs and come home and try to spend time with their family. Many resentful humans will lump them all into one category anyway. In the opening scene, humans in a bar think nothing of whining about Newcomers draining society, while being served drinks by a Newcomer bartender who they know by name, make small talk with and call “buddy.”
So it’s a movie about immigration, racism and integration. In its later incarnation as a season of TV plus 5 TV movies starring Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint it was able to explore these issues in much more detail (and reveal that male Newcomers are the ones that give birth). The movie does flirt a little bit with bringing sex into it – a Newcomer exotic dancer Sykes needs to question aggressively hits on him, and I think he does seem a little tempted, though on the surface he acts racist about it. I think she might know that and just want to make him uncomfortable anyway. Then again, she could go around and sow her wild oats with as many human men as she wanted and not have to worry about knocking them up.
The mystery and procedural parts are just enough to get by on, but like many buddy movies it’s the two leads and their chemistry that make it worth watching. Caan gives the same wiseass performance he would if it was a regular old cop movie without any aliens or anything. He’s funny and likable even though he’s an asshole. But Patinkin is even better. Francisco can be comically uptight, and plenty of humor comes from his lack of familiarity with Earth customs. He’s always game to learn, wise enough not to be ashamed of his mistakes, but also trying hard to fit in. He’s also clearly a serious, moral cop, so of course Sykes has to end up recognizing that and respecting him.
I like their chemistry, and I like the matter-of-factness of this world. They don’t act like there’s anything fantastical going on. They’re just cops. When Caan is surprised or disgusted by anything from the alien culture it’s his problem. It makes him Archie Bunker.
I don’t know if you guys know this, but in the real Los Angeles of 1991, there was no alien society that had to be integrated. There were, however, some pretty big issues involving race relations and the police, most notably the infamous March 3rd beating of Rodney King by a mob of white police officers who were, according to their bosses and later a jury, doing their job properly. The racial tensions in ALIEN NATION’s 1991 are actually kind of mild compared to the reality.
Another way you can tell this movie about the ’90s was actually made in the ’80s: the end credits song “Indestructible” by the Four Tops sounds like it was stolen from a Stallone film. “We are friends / We are brothers / Always there looking out for each other.” It also says “Two hearts can beat as one,” so it’s both about friendship and the differing anatomy of Newcomers.
Actually, I see there’s a video for it, but unfortunately there are no Newcomers in it.
Speaking of Stallone, lucky Newcomers got to see RAMBO 6 in Slagtown. I’m not sure if it’s in English or has subtitles or what. Here we didn’t even get to part 4 until 17 years later.
Director Graham Baker had done OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT and IMPULSE, and went on to do BORN TO RIDE with John Stamos and BEOWULF with Christopher Lambert. The screenwriter Rockne S. O’Bannon is more prolific as a TV writer and producer (he created Farscape). And it’s produced by the great Gale Anne Hurd right before THE ABYSS.
I’d been thinking of re-watching this somewhat-forgotten movie when out of the blue I read that Jeff Nichols (MUD, LOVING) was directing a remake. But I read that when they approached him he decided it was a good opportunity to use a pre-existing sci-fi idea he had dealing with aliens newly arrived on earth. That’s disappointing to me because it sounds like it won’t necessarily be the same premise of a buddy cop movie with an alien. Still, with his skills and the themes he’s interested in I gotta imagine it will be worth seeing.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.