VHS Visions: Alien Nation (1988)

Published on February 23rd, 2016 in: Action Movies, Movies, Science Fiction, VHS, VHS Visions |

By Tim Murr

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My favorite type of science fiction is where it’s basically our real world but with a twist, just one or two things off, like Robocop or The Fly. Dystopian futures and spaceships are fine, but I rarely feel sucked into those worlds in the same way. Alien Nation was one of my favorite films as a kid. It came out in 1988 and I couldn’t wait for it to hit my local video store. Being rated R, I knew there was no chance in hell of my parents taking me to see it in the theater.

The movie is about our first contact with aliens (called Newcomers). A ship appears over California. It’s not filled with conquerors or explorers, but slaves. The slave masters are missing. The Newcomers are peaceful and intelligent beings who adapt to our way of life and languages quickly. They are made citizens in the traditional way aliens from other countries are and become integrated into our society. They excel at whatever task they’re set to and begin to take human’s jobs –at least, that’s the perspective of some of the less tolerant among us. The tension between Newcomers and humans is sadly still relevant 28 years later with racist Tea Partiers calling for a wall to be built to keep out Mexicans.

The great James Caan stars as Detective Sergeant Matthew Sykes, a tough old cop who has no fondness for the Newcomers, or slags, as he derogatorily calls them. When Sykes and his partner Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown) come across two Newcomers robbing a liquor store, things go south quickly. A Newcomer kills Tuggle and Sykes pursues them. The chase ends in a tunnel where one Newcomer is hiding in the dark, drinking a strange liquid that physically alters him and makes him even stronger (they are stronger than humans in general) and animalistic. Sykes has to empty his gun into the Newcomer to bring him down. No one has seen this before and with his partner dead, Sykes wants to know what the hell happened to this Newcomer.

Mandy Patinkin (Princess Bride, The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland) plays Newcomer Samuel Francisco (or George, as he’s later nicknamed) who has been promoted as the first Newcomer detective. This happens just after Sykes returns to duty following the incident. George’s promotion is, of course, terribly offensive to all the detectives and no one wants to partner with him. Sykes sees an opportunity to avenge his partner and volunteers to partner with George.

From there, plotwise, Alien Nation becomes a typical odd couple cop film. George could be black or Latino or extraterrestrial. That’s not a knock against the movie, it’s still a well- crafted thriller and Cann and Patinkin are great together. Overall, though, the movie is insanely testosterone heavy, with only a couple of small speaking roles for women. Like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, Alien Nation gives us a funhouse mirror take on our sad reality.

I’m surprised no one talks about this film anymore. Yes, it’s a bit dated, but when it came out it was a fairly big hit, even spawning a TV series with two TV movies. These are also a bit dated, but still enjoyable. Alien Nation could really use a nice Blu-ray set. As a document of solid 1980s sci-fi, Alien Nation is just waiting to be discovered by a whole new generation of cinephiles.

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