Alien Nation

Director: Graham Baker
Screenplay:Rockne S. O'Bannon
Stars: James Caan (Det. Sgt. Matthew Sykes), Mandy Patinkin (Det. Samuel "George"Francisco), Terence Stamp (William Harcourt), Kevyn Major Howard (Rudyard Kipling),Leslie Bevis (Cassandra), Peter Jason (Fedorchuk), George Jenesky (Quint), Jeff Kober(Josh Strader), Roger Aaron Brown (Detective Bill Tuggle)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 1988
Country: USA
Alien Nation Poster

Alien Nation takes a fascinating sci-fi idea and squanders it on a routinepolice procedural that is less complex and engaging than a typical one-hour TV show.

The premise of the movie is that four million members of an alien species known asNewcomers have become integrated into American society after their ship was marooned onearth. With the exception of their bald, spotted heads that are slightly too large, theNewcomers look almost exactly like humans. They were genetically bred in the far reachesof space to be hard-working slaves, but their superior intellect and rapid learning capabilitieshave allowed them to quickly adapt to 20th-century human society (the story takes place in1991, which was three years in the future when the movie was initially released). Of course,adapting to society means adapting to all aspects of society. So, just as someNewcomers become factory workers, business executives, and policemen, so others becomecriminals.

The movie opens with a shoot-out between two L.A. police detectives, Matthew Sykes(James Caan) and Bill Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown), and a couple of criminal Newcomerswho murder a clerk while robbing a convenience store. Tuggle is killed in the shoot-out, andSykes becomes determined to hunt down those responsible. He volunteers to take on aNewcomer partner, the first to be promoted to the rank of detective. The Newcomer is astraight-arrow named Samuel Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), although Sykes insists on callinghim "George" because he can't stand the idea of introducing his new partner, "SamFrancisco." Sykes isn't particularly pleased to be working with a Newcomer (like many, herharbors deep-seated prejudices), but he thinks George might be useful in tracking downthose who killed his partner.

As they move forward in the investigation, it becomes clear that they are not dealing with asimple robbery. Rather, Sykes and George begin to link together a series of murders, all ofwhich point back to William Harcourt (Terence Stamp), a successful Newcomer who is awell-respected businessman and socialite. Of course, it's clear from the outset that Harcourtis guilty as sin (just listen to that sinister British accent), so the only mystery involves whathe's up to.

Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon, a TV writer worked on the '80s Twilight Zoneseries and Amazing Stories, as well as co-created SeaQuest DSV,Alien Nation has potential that it never completely fulfills. The allegoricalimplications of an alien species as maligned immigrants is rich in possibilities, yet O'Bannonnever seems to do much with it. The general set-up is solid, with the Newcomers caught in aparadox of being exploited by commercial enterprises (early on we see a Pepsi billboardprominently featuring a Newcomer model) while simultaneously being ghettoized bymainstream society. They are even bombarded with the slur "Slags," and most of them areconfined to a particular area of Los Angeles called "Slag Town."

O'Bannon's screenplay puts all this information up front, establishing the entirehuman-Newcomer history in the first five minutes, then pushes it to the background toconcentrate on the police procedural. To be fair, that was the intention, but just because itwas done purposefully does mean it makes for a particularly good movie. The problem isthat the procedural is not very engaging. It involves the standard police routines--trackingdown witnesses in seedy bars, running into goons trying to interfere, finding potential leadshave been killed--and none of it transcends the level of a thrown-together TV movie.O'Bannon certainly fashioned an incredibly economical script, in that every single detail weare given comes into play later on. Thus, when we first hear that the Newcomers get drunkon sour milk, we can be sure that George will get a drunk scene. Or, when we find out thatsalt water is like acid to Newcomer skin, it isn't hard to imagine that the action climax willtake place near the ocean.

Director Graham Baker (Omen III: The Final Conflict, Impulse) put themovie together in workman-like fashion, and the result is competent, but hardly inspired.The action sequences are well-handled, but they never get your blood really pumping. Theclimax becomes desperate enough to inject elements of the horror movie in a last-ditchattempt to generate tension, but by then it's a little too late.

The cop-buddy routine between James Caan (The Godfather, Misery)and Many Patinkin (best known as Inigo Montova in The Princess Bride) isbelievable enough, but saddled with unoriginality. Caan's Stykes is a hard-boiled tough guy,and wouldn't you know his ill feelings toward Newcomers are eventually softened by hisexperience working with George? It's like a socially conscious message movie about racefrom the 1950s given a science fiction twist. But, just because an old clunker is given a newcoat of paint doesn't mean it's going to run any better.

Alien NationDVD

AspectRatio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
AudioDolby Digital 4.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
LanguagesEnglish(4.1, 2.0), French (2.0)
SubtitlesEnglish,Spanish
Supplements Featurette
Behind-the-scenes footage
Original theatrical trailer
Three TV spots
Distributor20th CenturyFox
SRP$24.98

VIDEO
Presented in a new, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)transfer, the image quality of Alien Nation is solid. While the movie itself is notparticularly inventive visually, the transfer could not have made it look much better. Colorslook strong and natural, detail level is quite good, and black levels in the numerous nightscenes maintain solidity throughout, with only occasional traces of grain. Contrast is good,there was no pixel breakup to be found, and there is only the occasional instance of dirt thatis barely noticeable.

AUDIO
The soundtrack is available in either Dolby Digital 4.1 or2.0 surround mixes. The 4.1 mix is good, but not particularly memorable, with the majorityof the action kept on the front soundstage until the action sequences, where the surroundspeakers are brought to work to generally good effect. The car chases are especiallywell-done, with a good sense of directionality and imaging. The low-frequency effectschannel is used sparingly, but it sounds clean and distortion-free.

SUPPLEMENTS
The seven-minute featurette (presented in full-frame) is littlemore than a marketing device that essentially summarizes the movie's plot (don't watch itbefore the movie as it gives away virtually every plot point). There are a few, brief snippetsof interviews with James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, and director Graham Baker. Thebehind-the-scenes footage, while brief, is more interesting in that it shows uncut videofootage of the actors and director working on location. It constitutes all of about fourminutes, but it's a nice glimpse into the working practices on a movie set.

The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen, as well asthree full-frame TV spots.

Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick



Overall Rating: (2)



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