Dir:- Graham Baker
Starr:- James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp, Leslie Bevis, Roger Aaron Brown
Definitely one of the strangest mainstream Hollywood films of the 1980’s, Alien Nation was the brainchild of Rockne S. O’Bannon, the man responsible for the late 90’s cult sci-fi series Farscape. O’Bannon would later convert Alien Nation into a primetime television series (that lasted all of one season) and then a series of one-off feature-length TV movies, culminating in 1997’s The Udara Legacy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this Twentieth Century Fox production designed to cash-in on the 1980’s craze for all things sci-fi tinged, feels a lot like a lavishly realised TV pilot, with a slightly better calibre of lead actor than you might see on the small-screen at that time.
The premise behind Alien Nation is an intriguing one, which takes a fresh angle on the human attitude toward a close encounter of the third kind. Events unfold in the, then, near-future of 1991, three years after a spaceship has landed upon earth. Rather than this ship containing a crew of heavily armed and mercilessly oppressive extraterrestrial beings, it instead is manned by a group of refugee aliens who have lived a nomadic slave existence, drifting across various hostile pockets of the universe. Having a physical appearance that isn’t so drastically dissimilar to human beings and possessing an adaptive quality that makes them supremely fast learners and incredibly diligent workers, the aliens, casually referred to by humans as ‘Slags’, take very little time to assimilate into America’s consumer culture. More surprisingly, despite casual prejudice, the American public demonstrates at least a basic level of tolerance toward these interlopers.
The nuts and bolts of Alien Nation’s plotting revolves around the pairing of cranky, wise-cracking LA detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan, in the midst of a full-blown career resuscitation) and the by-the-book, newly promoted alien detective Sam Francisco (an almost entirely unrecognisable Mandy Patinkin). This classic odd-couple set up sees the two detectives antagonise each other, bond with each other and ultimately begin to understand one another, whilst all the time investigating an unusual double-homicide that also led to the death of Sykes’ original partner Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown). Although superficially a sci-fi thriller, the movie utilises the well-worn 1980’s fish-out-of-water buddy-movie format, featured in Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Midnight Express and Red Heat. It also follows the kind of simplistic crime-thriller conceits of light-hearted movies like K-9, Turner & Hooch and the Fletch films. With its strikingly original underlying premise and this tried and tested plot formula Alien Nation had all the potential to be a blackly comic variant on Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s cross-racial shenanigans in the Lethal Weapon movies. Therefore it comes as a huge disappointment to realise that O’Bannon’s strong suit isn’t comedy, nor is it particularly tense and dramatic action.
Despite the fact that for the first hour of the movie it seems to have avoided the fate of so many 80’s sci-fi classics, having barely dated at all, Alien Nation is a deeply unsatisfying missed opportunity. Terence Stamp turns in one of his worst performances (which says a lot when you consider how much his career trajectory mirrors that of James Caan’s) as the alien businessman with a vested interest in bringing back the good old days of narcotic enslavement. To reveal that Stamp, as William Harcourt, is the de facto bad guy, isn’t really spoiling much, as the film highlights this fact within it’s opening thirty minutes. With little, or no, discernible tension within the film, the plot simply wanders through a series of seemingly pre-ordained events, whereby the viewer discovers a little more of the alien culture, but not enough to engage them in any significant way with the characters. As a result characters such as Rudyard Kipling (an ongoing joke in the movie is how the alien’s are named) and Cassandra (Leslie Bevis) are essentially pointless cipher figures, with little history and even less purpose. It seems incongruous that O’Bannon would go to the lengths of detailing an alien diet (raw rodent meat and off-milk), an alien biology (two hearts and an aversion to saltwater), an alien personality (humourless and proper) and a whole alien language (lots of consonant sounds and popping noises) and then fail monumentally to deliver any real characters of interest, or more importantly a story within which these characters might develop. Ultimately, this leaves Alien Nation appearing to be the very definition of plodding.
Caan looks absolutely ravaged with the early onset of old age here (shocking at the time, but it has meant he’s barely altered in the last 23 years), but he is by far the best thing going in the movie. Sykes is initially using Francisco to get at the truth of who slayed his partner, but as things develop between them Sykes gradually moves from a stubbornly bigoted, old-school cop, to someone who may well be capable of change. Patinkin under layers of latex and Stan Winston Studios supplied make-up effects doesn’t have a whole lot to work with in the script department. As he has proven in roles as diverse as Jim Nashe (The Music of Chance), Jeffrey Geiger (Chicago Hope) and, of course, Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride), Patinkin is one of the most subtle performers around, with impeccable comic timing. The restricted nature of his work here makes it almost impossible for him to deliver a performance comparable to his best, yet he still just about manages to make even the most hackneyed of lines convincing. One of the few well-developed sequences in the movie sees Sykes and Francisco get drunk together. Whilst Sykes tries to convince Francisco of the humour in a joke, to no avail, Francisco points out to Sykes how well humanity has behaved toward his species. Finally, given a tasty piece of dialogue to work with Patinkin makes every word count when he tells Caan’s Sykes that the only sad thing about what he has seen of humanity is that “so few seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves”. In many ways the laboured direction of for-hire hack Graham Baker and the subtler intricacies of dialogue likewise fail to allow O’Bannon’s ideas to live up to their potential.