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Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Movie Index

ALIEN NATION

Directed by Graham Baker (1988, 20th Century Fox)
Starring James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, and Terence Stamp

An alien cop joins with a human cop to solve a murder due to a drug the Newcomers thought they left in their old life.

View count: Twice

 

 

3 stars+

July 27th, 2003 on TV  
    I don't remember my reaction to this movie when I saw it for the first time, in the theatre, but this time, I thought the concept was amazing, though the movie squandered it a little.

I love the conceptual aspect of this movie a lot. The idea would be to find out how a race of slaves would react to crash-landing on Earth and becoming American citizens. We get glimpses now and then of how that happens, though presumably most of their newfound culture was supposed to be explored in the TV series that followed many years later.

As far as I could tell, the timeline seemed a little screwed up right from the start, but it could be that I misidentified it. I believe the newscasters say that three years have passed since the Newcomers arrived, and they were just being released from quarantine when the movie begins. But that can't be, because the Newcomers have their own town, jobs, even street drunks, as well as one police detective. So I believe it has been three years since the Newcomers were let out of quarantine, and I'll leave it at that.

The Newcomers don't seem to have a culture of their own. As a slave race, they probably weren't permitted to have one, though these things tend to develop anyway, with time. They have integrated into American society flawlessly. They have taken every possible human virtue and vice, and exploited it to the fullest, even beyond what many humans are willing to do. So we have Newcomer store clerks and thugs. Strippers, barkeepers, and patrons. There are the little things that make this movie so good, especially since so few of them are explained explicitly to us. Such as when Sykes wonders why the Newcomer bums can't get drunk on something respectable, like Jack Daniels, instead of sour milk. It's just coincidence that Sykes has milk in his fridge that has gone sour, because that is the state of his life!

Sykes was never good at human relations, it would seem. He doesn't even want to go to his daughter's wedding because he and his ex-wife are not speaking. After his partner is killed, it is saddening to hear her tell him, on his answering machine, that she made his partner promise to drag him to the wedding, and that nothing would stop him from doing just that. She didn't count on death.

The background of the movie is so good that it very much overwhelms the plot. Sykes is forbidden to investigate for the person responsible for killing his partner, so he teams up with the new (and only) Newcomer police detective, on a case that he believes might be related, though nobody else knows this.

The two interview the wife of the dead store clerk, and follow a trail that quite easily leads them to the Newcomer responsible. It is a gritty trail, though, whose purpose is to show us the Newcomer culture as it adapting to Earth. As I said, it is the background that stands out.

It turns out that a small group of Newcomers has been developing a drug to which the slave race was addicted when they were in space. That not a single Newcomer mentioned this drug to their interrogators and quarantine agents is hard to believe. There were obviously some Newcomers who still desire the drug, and it is very likely that they would have given themselves away in some manner.

Francisco is determined not to let the drug gain a foothold on Earth, but his methods leave something to be desired. If one group could do it, then another can, as well. He can't be everywhere, especially when other countries start to inevitably open their doors to the Newcomers. Humans will eventually find out about the Newcomer "Dark Side".

Needless to say, Sykes and Francisco (Sykes calls him George to avoid the obvious pun the customs agent used) uncover the plot and kill just about everyone involved. The only Newcomer who escapes overdoses on the drug, so Sykes leaves him for dead. The overdose, however, triggers a change in the Newcomers. What exactly that change does is not explored, except that the "changed" Harcourt seems to be even stronger than usual.

In a neat twist, Sykes lures Harcourt into a boat, and then pushes the Newcomer into the ocean -since seawater is like acid to Newcomers, Harcourt dies an agonizing death. However, the movie uses standard horror movie clichés in having the dying man surface a number of times, his body half-eaten away, but somehow still alive.

He does die, eventually, and Francisco even plunges his hand into the water to save Sykes. So a new, respected partnership is born, and Sykes even manages to attend his daughter's wedding.

The movie looks like the 1980s, with the cars and hairstyles, and just the tone of society. Yet its gritty and real. It actually feels like a real, integrated society, which is a nice change in SF films, where the aliens tend to stand out. There were a lot of Newcomers portrayed here, on the streets, in the bar, and in the factories. I was impressed.

I have no idea if the TV series explored more of the societal aspects that the film hinted at, but there were so many hints here that it's almost impossible not to feel frustrated. Instead of learning even more about the Newcomers through interaction, Sykes and Francisco get drunk together. We also get several minutes of car chases, and ducking through the building at the end, that could have been put to better use.

The acting, directing and makeup, however, were top-notch, enough to make this movie stand out. It is unfortunate that we get to see society in the form of a cop-movie, which uses a standard format to deal with the plot. Still, there was plenty here to enjoy.

 
   

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