Alien Nation

Directed by Graham Baker

1988

In 1988 an alien slave ship crash landed on Earth. Three years later those former slaves now referred to as Newcomers are being integrated into society but not without problems. A bigoted cop’s partner is killed by one of them during a shootout and now the cop takes on one of them as his new partner and uses a separate investigation as a way to look into the death of his partner. Together they uncover a plot to bring back an evil from the Newcomers’ slave past.

Yes, this is the movie’s theme.

James Caan stars as Detective Matthew Sykes. A failed marriage has left Sykes bitter. He also has a daughter who’s about to get married but because he does not meet whatever expectations he has for himself when it comes to her, he does not want to go to her wedding. Also, like all bigots he holds an unfounded dislike for a group-in this case the alien arrivals. This is only made worse when his longtime friend and partner Bill Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown) is killed when they have to deal with what seems like an insignificant convenience store robbery.

Sykes is forced to confront his own biases and bigotry as the partner he chose as an excuse to investigate his dead partner’s death becomes an actual friend. The turning point in this is when they go to investigate a washed-up Newcomer body on the beach. Salt water is like acid to the Newcomers, so George is far away from the shore. Other cops at the scene make fun of George for staying away and Sykes after seeing some graffiti they painted on the side of his car takes their keys and throws them into the surf. The Sykes at the beginning of the film would not have done that.

Mandy Patinkin is George “Sam” Francisco. George understands that Matthew doesn’t like him just because of his species. In fact, when they first met George had yet to be promoted to detective and was a lowly officer. When he arrived at the scene of the crime Matthew took a swing at him. The character was originally to be called George Jetson but last-minute legal issues with Hanna-Barbera made that in an impossibility. Some judicious editing and quick re-recording of dialogue fixed that since the original name was in much of the film. I honestly like the name Sam “George” Francisco better. It is less silly but still gets the point across of how many in society view Newcomers. I think it would’ve been too much of a joke had they been able to use Jetson. 

In this film the Newcomers are the stand ins for African-Americans, but you can see parallels to other groups as well. Traditionally in a film like this with a bigoted cop the partner would be African-American, but here it’s an alien partner which provides for an interesting twist. Culture clashing is explored but unfortunately it’s only explored superficially. It extends no further than George eating raw beaver since his people are unable to process the nutrients in cooked food and his species getting drunk off of spoiled milk. 90 minutes does not allow for much of anything in depth. What we get here more often is George making observations about humans and the human condition.

Aside from that it is your standard mismatched pairing film from that era. Two cops investigate a murder and end up busting up a drug ring. Those movies came out with such regularity then. The plots barely differed. This movie greatly benefits from the alien partner twist. Without it the film would’ve been forgotten if it ever actually had been made.

As I imply, the story rises above what it is at its core through not only the twist of the partner but the acting and the writing. The credit for the writing goes to Rockne S. O’Bannon. The man is one of the great creative minds in the visual science fiction genre. He has been connected to so many unique ideas and always brings something special. His very finest efforts were in the cult series Farscape. If you haven’t seen that you should.

The series of murders they investigate all connect back to a socially high-ranking Newcomer named William Harcourt (Terence Stamp). Stamp is one of the great villain actors of our time. Here his character is a charming yet cruel individual that cares nothing for the harm he will unleash.

While the Newcomers were in quarantine Harcourt was able to arrange to be housed with several others and together with them re-created a drug called Jabroka that the overseers doled out as a form of pleasure to control their slaves. The harder they worked the more of this drug they got. His plan is to market this drug to his people and kill his partners in order to keep the profit for himself.

The ending of the film is a bit of a monster movie ending but I’m not sure how else you could’ve ended this story. You needed to emphasize the alien aspect of not only the drug but the intended customers. Also, in a society that was supposedly barely tolerating them at times how could you arrest Harcourt and have a throw the book at them ending. This was the only way to wrap it up.

It is an enjoyable late 80s film. The plot itself isn’t unusual but the twist of the alien immigrants to stand in for African-Americans helps to raise it above what you would otherwise find. It’s a good film and I’m willing to bet you haven’t seen it. You really should though.

Published by warrenwatchedamovie

Just a movie lover trying spread the love.

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