Alien Nation (1988, dir. Graham Baker)
“We are not the same. I am a martian.” – Lil Wayne
“Why the fuck… Why would you bring up that?” – James Caan when asked by the AV Club about his role in Alien Nation
“Detect this!” – Detective Sykes (James Caan) as he throws a fellow detective’s keys into the ocean
The buddy cop genre has proved to be one of Hollywood’s most durable. And it goes without saying that the late 80s and early 90s were the heyday of buddy cop films. A genre that started with black guy/white guy pairings (48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and my personal favorite Showtime- in which you can literally see DeNiro’s legacy erode in front of you), eventually became so prevalent that cross-species partnerships were added to keep the formula alive: dogs (Top Dog), a dinosaur (Theodore Rex), and finally, the subject our current post, aliens (Alien Nation).
As the poster makes abundantly clear, Alien Nation takes place in 1991 (props to the film for setting a movie only three years in the future. I feel like most “future” movies are at least a couple decades forward). A group of aliens, referred to throughout as “newcomers” or “slags”, have landed in downtown Los Angeles. These newcomers look only slightly different from human beings. Their heads are elongated and speckled with brown dots resembling the tops of uncooked Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, while the rest of their bodies are standard Homosapien. The “newcomers” didn’t come here to colonize, instead they were fleeing slave labor in their own galaxy. And despite some misgivings, Americans have allowed them to integrate into our society.
This point is made clear from the very first scene as human detective Tom Sykes (James Caan) and his human partner are driving through a “newcomer” neighborhood. They watch as the “newcomers” shop at their own stores, eat in their own restaurants, and inexplicably play on their own lacrosse teams (No mention is made of why these aliens chose one of the waspiest sport as their own). Even the billboards are modified to fit the new alien inhabitants (In this case it’s a Pepsi ad with a “newcomer” jumping in the air and doing the splits….suggesting that the ad industry is completely outta ideas even when it comes to marketing toward interstellar travelers).
Before we know it, there’s a robbery in progress, an alien-on-alien crime. Sykes and his partner descend on the scene. There’s a shootout, the partner is killed (…not sure if it was the right move for a film that’s ultimately about diversity to kill the only black character in the first ten minutes….), and the criminals get away. Sykes resolves to bring these killer aliens to justice. But, wouldn’t you know it, he gets a new partner who, you guessed it, is also an alien. The alien partner’s name is George (Mandy Patenkin) and he’s the first “newcomer” to be made detective.
From there starts a typical cop-drama plot line. Sykes and George bond as they uncover a deeper mystery involving a ring of alien drug runners, complete with a suit wearing bad guy alien named Harcourt played by Terrance Stamp. The structure is often so by the book that it borders on Law and Order territory. Sykes and George rough up some suspects outside of a bar, they question a female alien stripper, they have a late night where they get drunk together, etc. All of it leading to an extended climax, in which Harcourt has taken an overdose of the alien drug and turned himself into a hulking mega-“newcomer”. He chases Sykes into the ocean, and George proves their unlikely friendship by sacrificing part of himself to save his partner.
The film is generically directed by Graham Baker. Baker’s shots exist exclusively to capture the action. Which honestly isn’t the wrong way to approach this style of screenplay. The concept is already bordering on absurd, so the last thing the film needs is a veneer of self-conscious “artistry”. And with a resume that includes the third Omen film and a Beowolf remake starring Christopher Lambert, one can assume Baker wasn’t recruited for his unique visual sensibilities.
Meanwhile, with his fried hair, constant half-grimace, and skin that resembles artisanal beef jerky James Caan is the picture perfect down-and-out cop. Throughout the movie he wears the same brown leather jacket and cutoff Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. Begging the question, does the LA police department have any sort of dress code? Is there a “loose canon” clause where certain members of the force are allowed to dress like step-dads?
I suppose science fiction, and specifically “aliens”, have always been the go-to metaphor for exploring racial tensions without being explicitly about those racial tensions. As recently as District 9, numerous directors have found it easier to confront humanities tendency for prejudice with science fiction.
Yet, aside from a couple fish outta water jokes at the beginning (George doesn’t know what a condom is, George mistakenly names his son after Richard Nixon) Alien Nation plays the alien/man dynamic pretty straight. Honestly, I expected Baker to push the concept further, to do a deeper probe of the differences between human and “newcomer”. I mean, Sykes is riding around in his car with fucking ALIEN. Shouldn’t they be acknowledging this more?! But after about fifteen minutes I kinda forgot I was watching earth’s first cosmic cop duo. Their backgrounds started to seem irrelevant. The only thing I cared about was if they’d solve the case at hand.
It wasn’t until hours after finishing the film that I realized that was probably the point.
- The film was adapted into a short lived TV show a year after it’s theatrical release. It’s one of the more bizarre pieces of ephemera I’ve ever come across. Alien kids flying kites? Check. Alien police officers confused by fire extinguishers? Check. A random title song sung in alien language? Check. Here are the opening credits. I wonder if you were cast as one of the aliens on this show, after the show got cancelled, would you put this footage in your acting reel??
- It was announced this month that Jeff Nichols will be directing a remake of Alien Nation for Fox. I’m a huge fan of Nichols and can understand why he sees fertile ground in Alien Nation’s overarching metaphor. Here’s hoping he doesn’t pull a Tim Burton ala Planet of The Apes.
- At one point early in the film Sykes goes to his refrigerator. Inside are multiple open cartons of Chinese food. When did Chinese food become the quintessential image of lazy bachelorhood? It’s a “chicken or the egg” scenario right? I don’t know which came first, bachelors hastily shoving old Chinese food into the fridge, or Hollywood using Chinese food to communicate a certain desperation.