Alien Nation [DVD]
Screenplay : Rockne S. O'Bannon
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1988
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)
Alien Nation takes a fascinating sci-fi idea and squanders it on a routine police 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 as Newcomers have become integrated into American society after their ship was marooned on earth. With the exception of their bald, spotted heads that are slightly too large, the Newcomers look almost exactly like humans. They were genetically bred in the far reaches of space to be hard-working slaves, but their superior intellect and rapid learning capabilities have allowed them to quickly adapt to 20th-century human society (the story takes place in 1991, 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 some Newcomers become factory workers, business executives, and policemen, so others become criminals.
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 Newcomers who murder a clerk while robbing a convenience store. Tuggle is killed in the shoot-out, and Sykes becomes determined to hunt down those responsible. He volunteers to take on a Newcomer partner, the first to be promoted to the rank of detective. The Newcomer is a straight-arrow named Samuel Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), although Sykes insists on calling him "George" because he can't stand the idea of introducing his new partner, "Sam Francisco." Sykes isn't particularly pleased to be working with a Newcomer (like many, her harbors deep-seated prejudices), but he thinks George might be useful in tracking down those who killed his partner.
As they move forward in the investigation, it becomes clear that they are not dealing with a simple robbery. Rather, Sykes and George begin to link together a series of murders, all of which point back to William Harcourt (Terence Stamp), a successful Newcomer who is a well-respected businessman and socialite. Of course, it's clear from the outset that Harcourt is guilty as sin (just listen to that sinister British accent), so the only mystery involves what he's up to.
Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon, a TV writer worked on the '80s Twilight Zone series and Amazing Stories, as well as co-created SeaQuest DSV, Alien Nation has potential that it never completely fulfills. The allegorical implications of an alien species as maligned immigrants is rich in possibilities, yet O'Bannon never seems to do much with it. The general set-up is solid, with the Newcomers caught in a paradox of being exploited by commercial enterprises (early on we see a Pepsi billboard prominently featuring a Newcomer model) while simultaneously being ghettoized by mainstream society. They are even bombarded with the slur "Slags," and most of them are confined to a particular area of Los Angeles called "Slag Town."
O'Bannon's screenplay puts all this information up front, establishing the entire human-Newcomer history in the first five minutes, then pushes it to the background to concentrate on the police procedural. To be fair, that was the intention, but just because it was done purposefully does mean it makes for a particularly good movie. The problem is that the procedural is not very engaging. It involves the standard police routines--tracking down witnesses in seedy bars, running into goons trying to interfere, finding potential leads have 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 we are given comes into play later on. Thus, when we first hear that the Newcomers get drunk on sour milk, we can be sure that George will get a drunk scene. Or, when we find out that salt water is like acid to Newcomer skin, it isn't hard to imagine that the action climax will take place near the ocean.
Director Graham Baker (Omen III: The Final Conflict, Impulse) put the movie 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. The climax becomes desperate enough to inject elements of the horror movie in a last-ditch attempt 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) is believable 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 his experience working with George? It's like a socially conscious message movie about race from the 1950s given a science fiction twist. But, just because an old clunker is given a new coat of paint doesn't mean it's going to run any better.
|Alien Nation DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 4.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (4.1, 2.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| Featurette |
Original theatrical trailer
Three TV spots
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Presented in a new, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, the image quality of Alien Nation is solid. While the movie itself is not particularly inventive visually, the transfer could not have made it look much better. Colors look strong and natural, detail level is quite good, and black levels in the numerous night scenes 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 that is barely noticeable.|
|The soundtrack is available in either Dolby Digital 4.1 or 2.0 surround mixes. The 4.1 mix is good, but not particularly memorable, with the majority of the action kept on the front soundstage until the action sequences, where the surround speakers are brought to work to generally good effect. The car chases are especially well-done, with a good sense of directionality and imaging. The low-frequency effects channel is used sparingly, but it sounds clean and distortion-free.|
| The seven-minute featurette (presented in full-frame) is little more than a marketing device that essentially summarizes the movie's plot (don't watch it before the movie as it gives away virtually every plot point). There are a few, brief snippets of interviews with James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, and director Graham Baker. The behind-the-scenes footage, while brief, is more interesting in that it shows uncut video footage of the actors and director working on location. It constitutes all of about four minutes, 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 as three full-frame TV spots.
©2001 James Kendrick