Alien Nation (1988) / Sci Fi-Action

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, brief nudity, drug content, and language
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp, Kevyn Major Howard, Leslie Bevis, Peter Jason
Director: Graham Baker
Screenplay: Rockne S. O'Bannon
Review published November 11, 2006

Set in the near future of 1991, it's been three years since the landing of an actual flying saucer landed on Earth, containing a species of aliens (dubbed "Newcomers") who had been genetically engineered as slave laborers.  The Newcomers are smarter and physically stronger than their human counterparts, which makes them more suitable to perform certain jobs, and the backlash against them from the human population is escalating daily.  In this environment, Detective Sergeant Matt Sykes (Caan, Rollerball) has his partner killed by one of the alien "slags", making it his mission to take down the ones responsible.  He voluntarily requests to be partnered with the first Newcomer police detective, Sam Francisco (Patinkin, The Princess Bride) - Sykes calls him "George" instead, and while they haven't been specifically assigned the homicide case, Sykes won't stay off of it, employing Sam's help as needed in order to get to the bottom of the underworld slag crime syndicate.

Alien Nation is an entertaining science fiction premise mixed with standard cop thriller that offers up just enough interesting background information and buddy movie reparteee to please fans of both genres.  Underneath the narrative survface, there is quite a bit of commentary on the state of immigration, particularly in the difficulty of assimilation of outsiders into current culture, as well as the uneven class system created by bigotry that would see a species fend for themselves for existence, turning to crime, drugs, and other means in order to survive where there is a low glass ceiling.  It never delves deep into these themes, as the film plays more as a straightforward actioner, but future television efforts and books developed more on these themes in greater detail, making it a much stonger, more unique science fiction work that has developed its own small but fervent fan base.

As a film, Alien Nation plays a bit better as a science fiction story than as an action vehicle, although director Graham Baker seems more interested in the latter, turning up the heat during a few chase scenes and some rather bloody shootouts.  In many ways, the film can be seen as derivative of other 1980s science fiction films like Blade Runner and The Terminator (interestingly, James Cameron helped with a rewrite of the screenplay), offering up a strong action/chase element at its core, while still delivering enough of a unique premise to hit home with certain themes and perspectives to offer up something to think about afterward.  

Alien Nation isn't a high budget film (only $16 million budget), and never really delves quite deep enough in its characters to truly make the climax as gripping as it needs to be to elevate it into a sci-fi classic.  However, the screenplay by O'Bannon does manage to rise above the b-movie delivery to make this a more intelligent and ethical story than most buddy cop thrillers around the takedown of a drug manufacturing crime lord.  It's alien, and yet, oddly familiar.

-- Followed by a TV series (1989-90), and four made-for-TV movies, Alien Nation: Dark Horizon (1994), Alien Nation: Body and Soul (1995), Alien Nation: Millenium (1996), Alien Nation: The Enemy Within (1996), and Alien Nation: The Udara Legacy (1997).

Qwipster's rating

©2006 Vince Leo