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ALIEN NATION

Review by Alex Haberstroh

Stars:  James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terrance Stamp
Director:  Graham Baker
Audio:  Dolby Digital 4.1, Dolby Surround (English and French)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video:  2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  April 3, 2001 

Film **1/2

Having always enjoyed the films of James Caan, such as The Godfather or Eraser, I was pleased to see that he was featured in Alien Nation.  Sadly, I foolishly believed that Caan’s involvement in the project would make Alien Nation a possible “diamond in the rough” of the bad eighties science fiction films. 

The plot seems somewhat intriguing: in the year 1991 (three years after the movie was filmed), 300,000 humanoid extraterrestrials arrive on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  The “Newcomers” (or “slags”) as they come to be called, are a genetically engineered slave people who are strong, highly intelligent, and quickly blend in after their arrival.  While driving through the section of town where most of the Newcomers live, Detective Sykes (Caan) loses his partner in a standoff between two Newcomer gunmen.  In an attempt to find out what the men were after that led to his partner’s death, Sykes must reluctantly pair with the city’s first Newcomer detective.

Recently I wrote that “universal themes” or a “collective unconscious” were often present in nearly all literature and movies, as they are not only natural to a story, because we as humans generally agree on certain themes, but also beneficial, because the stories can more easily illustrate a point that filmmakers wanted audiences to think about and possibly reassess. 

Unfortunately, Alien Nation doesn’t just go for a common universal theme; rather, it seems as if the screenwriters just tried to develop the plotline halfway through as a science fiction story, and then churned out a typical “buddy flick.”

Throughout the story, I expected to see some interesting plot twists (especially because the trailers claim “there’s something about them we don’t know!”) or some more exposure to the alien culture.  For example, how did they live, where were they from, when did they escape their slavery, who enslaved them, were there chances of them being found by their former masters?  All of these questions are left unanswered, as if we’re to divine the answers ourselves.  As well, the filmmakers don’t even make an attempt at the main character having a memory or a flashback to show the audience the conditions of brutal slavery they experienced. The only insight we get into their society is that there was an incredibly potent drug that their masters used to spur them to work harder (doing whatever hard labor they were designed for, again, we aren’t told). 

In terms of acting, the only thing that made this film bearable was the obvious chemistry between the two leads, James Caan and Mandy Patinkin.  Both do an excellent job of playing their characters, Caan as a gruff and tough slob (“bad cop”), and Patinkin as the polite “by the book” Newcomer (“good cop”).  My only disappointment was that Terrance Stamp (who you most likely won’t recognize through all the makeup) isn’t really used well as a villain, in contrast to his scene-stealing role as the imposing General Zod of Superman II.  Rather, he is a “cookie-cutter” bad guy who’s involvement in the movie seems only secondary, with his true motives and feelings quickly dismissed. One final note, what’s with this Hollywood cliché of every villain getting honored in some sort of banquet for being a “pillar of the community?”  From Dr. Charles Nichols in The Fugitive, to Ellis De Wald from Beverly Hills Cop III, to this bad alien guy in Alien Nation.  I haven’t gone to film school, but is this what they teach the screenwriters to pump out in “Screenwriting and Originality 101?”   

If you favor a film that offers the occasional humorous moment, but is generally the same ol’ “buddy cop” fare, this is for you, but to be honest, the Lethal Weapon series and Rush Hour do it better.

Video ***

The video quality is surprisingly good, and I had a hard time believing it was from the eighties.  A good deal of the film is shot at night, but I didn’t notice too many problems with the black levels or shadows.  All in all, I didn’t find any real big problems with this transfer; this is a solid effort overall from Fox.   

Audio ***

Another interesting audio setup is provided from Fox.  The advertised 4.1 track is an interesting mix, with most of the sound coming from the center channel, although a lot of directional effects such as car horns, gunshots, and screams come from the left and right speakers as well.  Regrettably, the subwoofer and rear channels don’t seem to have any real presence in this film.        

Supplements ***

First up is a approximately seven minute featurette, which is the typical HBO/Cinemax type promo for the movie, i.e.- you’re not going to miss anything…missing this.  Next is a Behind the Scenes moment featuring James Caan performing part of the shootout scene in the beginning of the film.  Following is a theatrical trailer for Alien Nation, as well as three TV spots, and finally, Fox Flix, which contains trailers for Aliens, Enemy Mine, Independence Day, The Abyss, and finally Zardoz. 

Summary:

In conclusion, Alien Nation is a film with some good acting, but I really felt it could have been much more.  The supplemental material is acceptable and the audio and video transfer is satisfactory, but I’d really recommend this for just a rental.