Friday, January 8, 2010

Film Review: ALIEN NATION (1988, Graham Baker)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin (THE PRINCESS BRIDE, DEAD LIKE ME), Peter Jason (THEY LIVE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Terence Stamp (THE LIMEY, SUPERMAN II, THE HIT), Kevyn Major Howard (FULL METAL JACKET, DEATH WISH II, SUDDEN IMPACT), Leslie Bevis (SPACEBALLS, FALCON CREST). Special makeup effects by Stan Winston studios.
Tag-line: "Los Angeles, 1991. They have come to Earth to live among us. They've learned the language, taken jobs, and tried to fit it. But there's something about them we don't know. Prepare Yourself."
Best one-liner: "Don't take it personally. I'm a bigot."

Combine the slick, one-liner'd potboiler traditions of the buddy-cop flick and the socially-minded sci-fi of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and whaddya get? ALIEN NATION. Taking place in L.A. of 1991, the set-up (a genetically-engineered alien slave species has landed and partially integrated themselves to human society) lends itself to endless commentary on race, drugs, immigration, and all that jazz. Now some have criticized the film for the superficiality of its analysis, but I say: it ain't Richard Wright, and it doesn't have to be. It's more along the lines of Reagan's 3rd term, RAMBO VI getting released to theaters,

and a linguistic potpourri of euphemisms (i.e., "newcomers" instead of "second-class citizens"). No one's going to write their dissertation on this, but it’s still full of prescient little moments, and you still kinda purse your lips when an alien accuses our society of being incapable of living up to its ideals.

James Caan plays our bigoted hero. He channels the likes of Eastwood and Bronson as he looks upon everything alien-related with complete and utter disdain.

Of course, he's paired on a case with the first alien detective, played by the ever-exceptional Mandy Patinkin.

Oh yes. And basically every payoff that should ensue does, in fact, ensue- right down to the closing credits music of The Four Tops' "Indestructible," a post-racial ballad featuring lyrics like "We are brothers" and "Two hearts can beat as one." So despite the big-budget and Stan Winston makeup, we've got a little Cannon-style moxie goin' on. Regardless, the futuristic world constructed by the film is very logical and intricate (which led to a TV series, novels, and additional films), and a conspiracy is introduced which is not only satisfying, but it actually makes sense (!)- something of an achievement for the genre.

Terence Stamp plays our stately villain to a T,

Carpenter standby Peter Jason is a gleefully racist cop who's just asking for his nose to get busted ("Take a look at your dildo partner!"), David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” is the house music at an alien dive bar, Mandy works in some impromptu a cappella singing (attaboy!- hey, he even managed to work it in on DEAD LIKE ME), and the aliens' preferred hooch is spoiled milk (which leads to chunky milk/Stoli drunken buddy bonding!).

Yup, this is the sort of thing that I really enjoy. Four stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

"So despite the big-budget and Stan Winston makeup, we've got a little Cannon-style moxie goin' on."

heh! Now, that SHOULDA been on the back of the VHS/DVD box for this film. Of course, studio might've taken offense to the Cannon reference but it's an apt analogy.

I like this film and have fond memories of seeing it in theaters when it first came out. Plus, Caan gets to carry a really big gun, which is always fun to watch. The TV show demonstrated how much the film relied on the presence of and the chemistry between Caan and Patinkin. Something that the show was never able to re-create.

Sean Gill said...

I never saw any of the TV series- I understand it has a rather devoted cult following, but at least 50% of my enjoyment of this flick is Patinkin/Caan-related. And, of course, Cannon-style moxie is never a bad thing, either.