Alien Nation #1: Alien Nation (Film)

The film that spawned a TV series (1 season and 5 tele-films), novels, comics and, in a way, District 9. In the near future (actually the early 90s), a bigoted cop gets a new partner, one of the alien Newcomers, to help him solve an alien drug conspiracy.
For the next four weeks, the Blog of Geekery will be looking at Alien Nation, a franchise that, while not the longest-running, did have a strong fan base. I think I saw the film when it was on TV in the early 90s, and maybe an episode somewhere in there. That's it. I feel like I'm coming to this pretty fresh. Hope you're a fan or like me, want to be. If not, we won't be here too long.

SLAGS LIKE US: Since Alien Nation is meant to mirror our world and use science fiction to explore race relations in the West, this section will attempt to track the allegorical elements used by Alien Nation, whether ripped from the day's headlines or part of the greater tapestry of History. The film (and thus the show) doesn't tie itself down to any one meaning, and really angles at any time a minority group has had to integrate into mainstream society. So the Newcomers are former slaves (Emancipation), fairly recently came out of quarantine camps (the end of Segregation), and represent a new labor force who often do the jobs humans don't, like working in methane factories (the issues surrounding illegal immigration). As a member of a linguistic minority, I definitely connected to the scene where Francisco talks to the morgue attendant in the Newcomer language and gets the stink eye from Sykes. Obviously, there are other 80s concerns here, like a (much more effective) war on drugs.

REVIEW: If there's a criticism to laid at Alien Nation's feet, it's that the interesting societal stuff is in the background of what is essentially an 80s action movie trotting out the tired buddy cop trope/cliché. In the closed universe of a film, yes, that does leave you wanting more. In the series to come, where the world can be built up over the course of several weeks, that's not such an issue. We'll see. As an 80s action picture, it's actually a pretty good one, if not on the level of such of the era's blockbusters. It's never boring, with crazy shootouts, kinetic vehicle chases, and a healthy dollop of humor. The detective element, tracking the bad guys and figuring out their plans, is fairly well done, each piece connecting to the next (that's not always the case in things like this). The "last scare" cliché has a good twist to it, though I do question the wisdom of getting suave and oily Terrence Stamp as your villain, then turning him into a rage monster at the end. Seems a waste.

Of course, in a buddy cop movie, the plot isn't as important as the characters. James Caan plays Sgt. Matthew Sykes, a Dirty Harry type and self-professed bigot, teamed up with Mandy Pantinkin's Detective Sam Francisco (a pun because the clerks handing out names to Newcomers were getting punchy, but the whole movie is based on a pun, isn't it?), a genial sort whom Sykes figures has the connections to solve the murder of his old partner by Newcomer hands. (Like I said, there's little originality to the plot.) Both are likable in the parts, and Sykes' turn from racist cop to someone who feels the need to come to his partner's defense feels natural. All it really takes in life is common circumstances and the discovery through social interaction that we're all people really (the latter lubricated by a night of drinking). True enough.

Though the cop elements hold few surprises, we're always finding out more about the Newcomers, their biology, history and effect on American society, so it doesn't feel redundant. I'd have put "their culture" in there, except there's little of that. Newcomers have been genetically engineered to blend into whatever culture they've been sold to (presumably), or prevented from creating much of a culture of their own, so they've adapted to U.S. fashions remarkably quickly. And the U.S. had adapted to THEM, with fast food restaurants having gross Newcomer menus and so on. Some Newcomers are already sports stars and pillars of the community, and the government seems intent on making sure Newcomers aren't ghettoized by giving them equal opportunity and rapid promotion into various realms of endeavor. There's some sex talk, for comedy's sake - they can't be disabled by a shot to the crotch, let's say - and they have their own lacrosse-like game. The biggest difference between us and them seems to be biochemical. They eat raw game meat, get drunk on sour milk, and burn at the touch of seawater. Some of this is introduced as color, the latter is most definitely part of the plot, with Francisco facing his fear of the ocean to save his partner in the climax. Biochemistry is also important to Terrance Stamp's drug plot, since it's the Newcomers' greatest secret that their slave masters addicted them to a drug that's detergent to us, but a powerful "hulk-out" narcotic to them. The fear is that if we knew we'd either try to enslave them the same way, or would reject them for the roid-monsters the drug unleashes. Not unusually, the two heroes agree to cover up the whole thing, thus saving the world in addition to solving the crime. We're immersed in a slightly different world from our own, with a minimum of exposition, essentially discovering Newcomer strangeness along with Sykes, and looking at our own strangeness through Francisco's eyes. I don't think the film loses by focusing on the cop story; it just adds a thought-provoking layer to some well-worn territory.

When you take a movie and turn it into a series, how much of that movie do you 'port over to the small screen, and how often do you return to the well? What do you expand on? What holes do you need to fill. This section will look at the series' various episodes with a backward eye to the movie that started it all and make those connections.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A perfectly entertaining 80s cop movie - formulaic though it is - with an intriguing sci-fi twist. Obviously, it's not part of the series' continuity, but is of interest to fans of the show.


Timothy Brannan said...

Nice. I remember seeing the movie when it came out and was a fan. I also watched the series fairly regularly in college. Living in a dorm with no cable it was one of the few stations I got.

I know there were episodes I missed. All in all my memory of the series was it was fun and not that bad.

Randal said...

Alien Nation is such a better title than the working title Outer Heat, but I have to see the original title, Future Tense, is pretty good too.

Siskoid said...

It's not bad, but it's no Alien Nation / Alienation.

JeffJedi said...

Great choice for a new series, I barely remember some of the show but some part just stuck in my mind.

Jeremy Patrick said...

Man, I never noticed the pun in the title before. Stop blowing my mind, Siskoid! The movie sounds like something worth adding to my very long online queue.


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