Alien Nation (1988)
Alien Nation (1988)

Genre: Sci-Fi Adventure Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.

Release Date: October 7th, 1988 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Graham Baker Actors: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp, Kevyn Major Howard, Leslie Bevis, Peter Jason, Jeff Kober, Roger Aaron Brown

 


 

I

n the city of Los Angeles in 1991, aliens have landed. And now they’re among us. A lone spaceship (assumed to be a slave vessel), containing highly adaptable, exceptionally intelligent humanoids, has brought thousands of “newcomers,” who are finally released from quarantine and integrated into society about three years after the initial arrival. But humankind is reluctant in their welcoming; despite President Ronald Reagan suggesting otherwise, people everywhere exhibit apprehension, disgust, and rampant speciesism. It doesn’t help that the newcomers are so versatile that they easily pick up on human customs and routines, capable of insinuating themselves into everyday activities so seamlessly that the only thing that separates man and alien is their physical appearance.

“Half of ’em don’t even speak English.” LAPD Detective Sergeant Matthew Sykes (James Caan) is one such citizen, remaining dubious wherever newcomers are concerned. It doesn’t help that they’re also prone to human vices and crimes. When Sykes’ partner is killed in the line of duty as the duo attempt to stop a convenience store robbery by newcomers, he gains yet another reason to hate the alien beings. Further exacerbating his situation is a failed marriage and a partial estrangement from his daughter. The following day, the police captain announces that the Federal Bureau of Newcomer Relations has promoted a new detective – and that Sykes’ department is to take him on. In need of a new partner, Matt volunteers, solely because this unwanted outsider – Samuel Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) – will give him an opportunity to investigate crime in the newcomers’ area of the city.

In the process, human and alien will learn to work together – and even depend on one another. Coursing throughout is a clever examination of emotional and behavioristic differences, many of which correspond to stereotypical qualities that inspire non-science-fiction-related racism. From anatomy to sexuality to language/communication barriers to inherent idiosyncrasies to the government’s assigning of names (most of which are cruel jokes), plenty of details arise to inspire or fuel Sykes’ intolerance. The script even incorporates a specialized narcotic, and a slang term for newcomers: slag. “Don’t take it personally. I’m a bigot.”

The forced, rapid acceptance of an alien presence gives rise to hatred, even when there’s little reason; at the same time, the newcomers learn so quickly themselves that they’re aware of the discontent, forming their own distaste for their situation, despite the endowment of self-governance – something their species never had. A lack of understanding always leads to prejudices – just like in real life. The themes are universal, regardless of the fiction, following somewhat closely to the concepts explored in “Enemy Mine” as a sci-fi comparison, as well as countless other grounded, race-based dramas.

Underneath the human/alien relations is a fairly standard crime picture, embellished with bits of action, violence, and tough-guy acts. Were it not for the thinly-veiled social commentary, little of this would be original. Yet the actors all take the material seriously – an admirable feat considering the various futuristic additives and the extensive makeup – while the story itself refuses to make light of the cops-and-crooks adventure. Car chases, shootouts, and various stunts are orchestrated with sincerity and severity. And using excellent actors, even in smaller roles – including Terence Stamp – lends a certain gravity to what could have been akin to a flimsy, forgettable episode of “Star Trek.”

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10