(SPOILERS) I’m not sure there was a way to make Alien Nation, coming as it did in the socio-politically conscious science-fiction lineage of Planet of the Apes, and not make its themes seem somewhat clunky, overbearing and even patronising. The alternative would just have been to make some slick nonsense like Bright. Of course, if Alien Nation worked as slick nonsense, that would be something. Instead, it has just enough going for it to see why it was quickly spun off as a (short-lived) TV show (with a subsequent long-lived string of TV movies), but not enough to see it clear of abundant clichés of character, plot and motivation.
George: Your mother mates out of season.
All of which was pretty much the reaction at the time, despite a purported Jimbo rewrite of then-missus Gale Anne Hurd’s production (which included Cameron cinematographer Adam Greenberg). It comes as no surprise that Alien Nation was heavily edited (it runs at under ninety minutes, and while I always appreciate a picture that values brevity, this one was evidently gutted to make it pacier and less nuanced). It was scheduled for a July ’88 release (as Outer Heat) but then retooled for October, losing its Jerry Goldsmith score in the process.
I say nuanced. I doubt Rockne S O’Bannon, who went on to such glories as Farscape and Seaquest DSV, had an alien version of Chinatown on the page, just waiting for the right sympathetic moviemaker. Not when his story fall back is a War on Drugs tale of dealers of a steroidal narcotic called Jabroka. Even having their kingpin William Harcourt played by Terence Stamp isn’t enough. He’s unmistakeably Stamp, but as Marcus Natten noted in The Film Yearbook Volume 8, the makeup “robs him of any opportunity for dramatic expression”. Terry understandably called it a day when it came to the amped up kill-crazy Harcourt look of the third act, who was entirely essayed by a stuntman.
I’ll give O’Bannon the benefit of the doubt that obvious unmentioned elements – the assimilation of alien tech, space travel – were referenced in the movie before it got cut to shreds, but everything else you can find in Alien Nation has been done better elsewhere. Enemy Mine did the fractious human/alien becoming friends a few years earlier (and District 9 would get the balance about right more recently). The racist cop – “Don’t take it personally, I’m a bigot” says Caan’s Sykes to Cassandra (Leslie Bevis) at one point – turned semi-liberal bleeding heart had been a staple since In the Heat of the Night, and Sykes is less Harry Callahan than Nick Nolte in 48Hrs. Only without the outrageous buddy yuks or Water Hill giving the proceedings some oomph.
Sykes: Why’s it got to be sour milk they get wasted on?
Indeed, a point is made of Sykes not being human racist – he has a black partner, and it’s staunch all-purpose alien hater cop Fedorchuk (Peter Jason) who makes cracks about Mexicans – and lacking ingrained animus, beyond human hygiene standards (sour milk, raw beavers) and his partner being blown away by one. The aliens are known as Newcomers, or more colloquially as “slags”, which conjures visions of an Alien Nation featuring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman chasing ETs around rundown Greater London housing estates. Perhaps one of them’s played by Tony Selby.
In a mere three years – they come in 1988, this is set in 1991 – 300,000 aliens have set up a thriving LA community. The opening sequence is probably the best part of Alien Nation, actually, as a scene setter tracing this period, one that includes obvious allusions to real-world immigration (“Why can’t they got to Russia or someplace like that?”) Although, it has to be said, if you’re going to make an analogy to immigrants, it’s probably best not to state that your entirely sympathetic legal aliens are a bunch of recovering drug addicts and that these very immigrants are hatching a formidable scheme to get everyone on the stuff (well, not humans: it “Tastes like detergent” and has about the same effect).
Quint: I hear seawater’s like battery acid to these guys.
There are various noted differences between the races, from environment (they can breathe methane-rich air) to intelligence (“A ten-year-old is twice as smart as me”) to physiognomy; like Gallifreyans, they have primary and secondary hearts, and like Charlie Freak “Our bodies do not assimilate nutrients if the food has been cooked”. As to “I wonder if their plumbing’s the same?”, it seems their genital sensitivity is under the arms. And yet, there’s also a gag about their having MASSIVE cocks (of course, there is: “And still it fits?”)
O’Bannon has some decent ideas, like the lazy distribution of Earth names to the aliens (hence Rudyard Kipling and Sam Francisco – Sykes calls Mandy Patinkin’s Sam “George”). There’s a clip of Ronald Reagan talking about aliens (not really) which precedes Zemeckis’ controversial use of Clinton in Contact. Rambo 6 is showing (in 1991?!! That would be speedy, even by Rocky sequels standards) The aliens themselves are very subtly designed, perhaps too much so. Director Baker nixed more elaborate ideas; the they “all look alike” is obviously trotted out, and they are bald, like Greys, but more notable is that they are “a genetically engineered race, adapted for hard labour in almost any environmental condition”. Shades of replicants. As a slave race, they might also be compared to some readings of the Anunnaki having bred the human race.
George: Your home is quite disordered. I thought when I walked in that you have been burglarised.
But Alien Nation desperately needed a really solid storyline that could explore the premise effectively through the genre trappings. The plot is set up, but our detectives don’t have to work things out because the answers come to them, and the audience is told what’s going on directly. There’s no intrigue, and the action is pedestrian at best. Baker directed The Final Conflict, an underwhelming affair, and after this, he didn’t get much more in the way of high-profile work. And it isn’t so very surprising.
The cast is good, just not made the most of. Caan got shirty – well, there’s a surprise – when asked about the movie a few years back. He’d been notoriously difficult for a while by this point and was in his amends phase after half a decade’s retirement. So he worked with Coppola, Beatty, and Misery was a hit. But Caan is not a box-office draw (was he ever, really?), and his presence adds to the sense that this is all rather makeshift, that Fox lacked the conviction to make a top-tier entertainment (this would happen again with another near-future financial failure, Predator 2, a couple of years later).
George: I hope you understand how special your world is, how unique a people you humans are. Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to us that so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves.
Patinkin is really good, of course, and he can even pull off the platitudes, but it’s definitely true that the makeup is limiting. Stamp is no slouch, but his part is thankless. Kevin Major Howard (Full Metal Jacket) is a particularly psychotic alien. Brian Thompson’s alien head looks very odd. But so does Brian’s normal head.
Sykes: He was on something. I mean, it wasn’t sourdough. Am I right?
Jeff Nichols is supposed to be undertaking a TV “reimagining” of Alien Nation, but Nichols was also supposed to be doing an A Quiet Place spinoff. I wouldn’t bet on him actually making this series. But it’s a property to be milked, so someone will do it. Plus, while I wouldn’t bet on it being good, it’s material that entirely lends itself to the wokeness-suffused Disney/Fox empire.