An opening montage in this cult, late-1980s sci-fi reveals that 300,000 alien slave workers have made Earth their home after crashlanding on the planet three years earlier, and that attempts have been made to assimilate these humanoids into Los Angeles society, though this hasn’t been easy – as the title pun suggests – and the ‘newcomers’ still tend to stand out; they’re the ones with the weird skull markings who are getting drunk on sour milk. Unfortunately the aliens are not yet fully trusted by their human Angeleno counterparts, who derogatorily refer to them as ‘slags’, while the race’s superior strength and cognitive ability has caused further rifts as employers opt for cheap and hard-working alien labour over lazy, problematic humans. All of which serves as the backdrop for a mildly-entertaining mix of sci-fi and buddy cop movie, with James Caan as the grizzled detective investigating the death of his partner, who is killed by an alien gunman as he investigates a robbery. Naturally his superiors think the best course of action following this stressful event is to pair Caan’s rule-breaking plainclothes officer with a by-the-book newly-promoted alien detective named Sam Francisco (the aliens have been given silly names, which becomes a half-decent running joke), and it falls upon the two of them to solve a related murder and take down the drug baron connecting both cases. And so we have two more mismatched cinematic cop partners: human/alien, rule-breaker/rule-follower, etc.
A transparent allegory for immigration and racism in the US it may be, but there’s plenty of fun to be had from immersing oneself in Alien Nation‘s world, which is at times so silly it even includes an evil humanoid henchman who goes by the name of ‘Rudyard Kipling’. The screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores, and that left enough mileage in the premise for a spin-off TV series and a bunch of TV movies, though I presume none of these quite hit the just-about-mediocre heights of this original. In terms of the cast, it’s amusing watching a clearly-unfit Caan gamely trying his best during all the scenes of running, shooting and fighting, while Mandy Patinkin adds some light comic touches as the alien detective who gradually wins his partner’s trust. Terence Stamp is flat-out awful as a by-the-numbers villain, but his performance simply adds to the overall fun; he was clearly ordering extra ham on his sandwiches during production. So, not to be taken too seriously, by any means, but it is a shame that the film doesn’t measure up to the likes of 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon and it’s disappointing that the screenplay doesn’t follow up on the interesting questions it asks during the first act. Incredibly it was given an 18 certificate on release, which might suggest a tougher, grittier film than is actually the case, while as with most second-rate sci-fi of the era you wonder what Paul Verhoeven might have done with the project.
Directed by: Graham Baker.
Written by: Rockne S. O’Bannon.
Starring: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp.
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg.
Editing: Kent Beyda.
Music: Curt Sobel.
Running Time: 91 minutes.