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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Alien Nation

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at ALIEN NATION!

alien nation banner

THE STORY: It is the year 1991. Three years ago, enslaved aliens escaped their home world, landing in the Mojave Desert. Given refuge by the U.S government, the aliens, dubbed “Newcomers” have been fully integrated into the city of Los Angeles. One of them, George Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), is the first of his kind to be made a detective, and is partnered with a human cop, Sykes (James Caan), a bigoted veteran with an axe to grind against The Newcomers, as one of them murdered his former partner. Together, they attempt to trace down the manufacturers of a designer drug designed to re-enslave The Newcomers.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terrence Stamp. Directed by Graham Baker.

Why the fuck… Why would you bring up that? – James Caan on ALIEN NATION – Random Roles AV Club Interview

THE HISTORY: ALIEN NATION was a troubled production. In the late eighties, the buddy cop formula reigned supreme. It had arguably started with 48 HRS, but the movie that really kicked it into overdrive was LETHAL WEAPON, and by 1988 you had all kinds of mis-matched buddy cops hitting the screen. You had goofy buddy cops (Pat Morita and Jay Leno in COLLISION COURSE – which was so bad it sat unreleased until 1992), dead buddy cops (DEAD HEAT – a potential title for this column actually), lady buddy cops (FEDS) and a year later, another mini-genre unto itself – the human/dog buddy cop movie (K-9, TURNER & HOOCH).

So, logically, why not alien buddy cops?

alien nation james caan mandy patinkin

The reasoning was sound, and with Gale Ann Hurd behind it ALIEN NATION had a can’t miss formula. Add to that James Caan, who was making a comeback after taking a good six years off, as your human lead, as well as the many talents of Mandy Patinkin, and you have a film that probably should have spawned at least two sequels. Sadly, things behind the scenes did not go swimmingly, with Caan later on saying uncharitable things about director Graham Baker, who – to be fair to Caan – was maybe too much of a journeyman to tackle what should have been a major action franchise for Fox. In the end, the film went through a round of re-editing that, disastrously, led to the excellent Jerry Goldsmith score being dropped in favor of a low-key score by Curt Sobel. The film still wound-up getting fairly decent notices, but the domestic gross stalled at $25 million – not a great number for a high concept actioner.

"I assumed that the name of the character I agreed to play was George Jetson. And I was pretty pissed off that there was a screw-up and that the name couldn't be used.” - Mandy Patinkin – Starlog Interview

alien nation james caan

WHY IT'S GREAT: When people think of ALIEN NATION these days (if they think of it at all), they think of the Fox TV show. Fair enough, as the TV spin-off was ground-breaking in its day (having the Newcomer males carry the children was a daring move), but the 1988 film it’s based on deserves a second look. While it has its problems, notably a lack of well-staged action scenes that may stem from the TV movie-like approach by the director, it’s distinguished by an unusually clever script.

"I thought it made a tremendous difference to the piece that the guy's name was George Jetson because it gave a cartoon feeling, an innocence that was important to the movie's whole idea. It's a great loss to the piece that we couldn't recover, a great misfortune that couldn't be solved. It would have helped a lot."- Mandy Patinkin – Starlog Interview

Good sci-fi should always hold up a mirror to society, and ALIEN NATION smartly addresses racism and police violence with its tale of a racist (only against aliens though) cop being paired up with a Newcomer partner, and being forced to find common ground with him. Granted, Caan’s character is never built up to be particularly loathsome, just ignorant. Rockne S O’Bannon’s script spends more time than usual humanizing its hero, with him shown to be a divorced dad with an emotional side (he saves the tapes whenever his daughter says “I love you” on his answering machine). The gut-punch of his partner dying early on hits closer to home than usual for the genre thanks to Caan’s vulnerability in the part. By the same token, his edge is sharp enough to make his transition to a more tolerant cop feel earned.

"Everything in the script is Jetson, everything on the makeup is labeled Jetson, we always refer to him as Jetson. Not even George, but Jetson. So in our minds, he's George Jetson. So as far as I'm concerned, anybody who sees the movie, they're watching George Jetson no matter what the hell they call him." - Mandy Patinkin – Starlog Interview

Likewise, Mandy Patinkin, coming off of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, does a lot to humanize his Newcomer character, George Francisco (not Jetson!), despite being buried under layers of (impressive) makeup. He’s low-key and emotional, and the bonding scenes with Caan really work. O’Bannon’s script is also quite witty for the era, with a good joke being how the Newcomers get drunk off of sour milk. I also like the conceit that salt water is like acid to them. The drug-running storyline is relatively familiar for the genre (this was – after all – the era of “just say no”), but overall it’s a quick, effective comedy-thriller with some genuine staying power.

alien nation james caan mandy patinkin

BEST SCENE:

While it’s easy to mock the tropes of the genre, I do appreciate it when buddy cop movies hit all the sweet spots. I wanted to put in the drunk scene, but alas it’s not on YouTube. However, the “let’s try out this awesome new gun at target practice” scene is well-represented here.

SEE IT: ALIEN NATION is available on DVD, Blu-ray and HD on iTunes (it’s a bargain at under $10).

alien nation james caan mandy patinkinPARTING SHOT: While ALIEN NATION probably isn’t as good as it should have been, it stands up as a fun addition to the eighties buddy-cop pantheon, and it’s far superior to BRIGHT, which must have been more than a little inspired by the premise. Here’s hoping Jeff Nichols gets his proposed remake off the ground. Michael Shannon would make for a great Newcomer.

alien nation poster

Source: JoBlo.com

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