Good Idea, Lousy Execution
Reviewed in the United States on 4 December 2017
"Alien Nation" is a prime example of what happens when you hitch an expensive wagon to a sickly horse: you may look pretty, but you ain't going anywhere. A fascinating idea with plenty of talent and money behind it, it falls face-first into cliched buddy-cop convention almost from the start, and never rises above the predictable and mediocre. It really is a shame, because with the right team this film might have been a classic.
The story is simple but eyebrow-raising: a few years from now, an alien ship lands in the Southern California desert loaded with tens of thousands of "Newcomers" -- a humanoid race bred as slaves but abandoned and left to die by their masters. Highly adaptable, the Newcomers are soon released into American society, but remain "outsiders" by virtue of their weird appearance and peculiar ways (they can't eat anything cooked, get drunk off curdled milk, have their sex organs in their knees, etc., etc.). Like any immigrants, the Newcomers commit their share of crimes, and when cynical LAPD detective Matt Sykes (James Caan) loses his partner in a liquor store robbery pulled off by Newcomer thugs, he develops a series grudge against all "slags." So, naturally, he's less than pleased when his replacement partner, Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), turns out to be a "slag" himself. Forced to work together, the crusty Sykes (whose name means "sh*thead" in Newcomer-speak) and the gentle, seemingly naive Francisco investigate a series of crimes linked to a drug which effects only Newcomers, tracing it to a seemingly legitimate "slag" businessman named William Harcourt (Terrence Stamp), who has powerful connections in city hall. The odd couple cops must learn to trust -- and more importantly, understand -- each other if they are going to stop the flood of drugs and prevent a supposedly extinct menace from terrorizing the Newcomer population of Los Angeles.
As I said, the idea here is a very good one, and there are moments at the beginning of the film when you almost want to buckle up, expecting a wild ride which will provide both entertaining sci-fi and elaborate social commentary. The acting talent alone -- besides Cann, Patinkin and Stamp, there's also Brian Thompson, Jeff Kober, and Kevyn Major Howard, among others -- should have been enough to elevate the material. Unfortunately, the film quickly flops face-first into exhausted buddy-cop cliches we've seen a million times before, with some warmed over "In the Heat of the Night" type moral messages about prejudice and how to overcome it. What's worse, the world of the Newcomers, which is so interesting and seemingly complex, is barely explored. We learn about them, yes, but only in the shallowest, gimmicky sort of ways; the filmmakers seem unwilling to really explore the film's one really unique idea. It's not that "Alien Nation" is terrible: there are some funny sequences and some interesting scenes, but on the whole it is uninspired, desultory, and by the numbers. A heavy disappointment. It's almost as if they were afraid of the boldness of the concept and decided instead to make the safest, most unimaginative movie possible. In that, they succeeded.
Fortunately, the ideas behind "Alien Nation" did not die with the movie, but were continued in a cheesy but wonderfully enjoyable TV series which ran for a year and produced five television movies as well. The series did precisely what the film failed to do -- flesh out the characters, dive head-first into both the culture and backstory of the Newcomers, and further explore the way bigotry works within our own hearts and minds. So, if you enjoyed "Alien Nation" the film, you can continue your journey with the series; if you didn't, but were intrigued by the premise, you may find the second (television) time was the charm.
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