Alien Nation is a bit of a strange film. This might be termed the ‘pilot’ movie, but when it was made there was no indication that there would be a spin off television series. The film was reasonably successful, so much so that it resulted in a series that was perhaps not so memorable. The only modern example like this I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who remembers the ‘pilot’ movie with Kristy Swanson?)
The premise is reasonably unique, which sort of tells you about the quality of the scripts flying across the desks of Hollywood producers in the late ’80s. A large population of humanoid looking aliens descends on LA in huge saucer-shaped ships. They are refugees rather than invaders, these bald humanoids with patterned egg shaped heads. They come to LA to seek asylum, being a slave race, and the usual problems with racial integration ensue. These issues are ladled on without any subtlety.
The central story revolves around two characters, James Caan’s Matt Sykes and Mandy Patinkin’s George, or ‘Sam Francisco’. Matt Sykes is everything one can expect from a character played by Caan. He is a cop modelled on Harry Callahan or any cop who hasn’t read the rule book. He is certainly not corrupt, but he is rude, sexist, racist and would bend the rules to meet his goal. I think the scriptwriters knows that people love watching this sort of character and Caan delivers what we expect.
His attitude does change after his teaming with new partner Sam Francisco (this name is doled out by the bored people at INS who are running out of plausible names for the million or so visitors). You can probably guess why Sykes needs a new partner. Sykes drives ‘offensively’ (instead of defensively), he is estranged from his family, he carries a gun that even Dirty Harry would not use and he has the begrudging respect of his colleagues but his captain thinks he is a loose cannon. I think the scriptwriter was working off a checklist...
Patinkin is about the only actor recognisable under his makeup. He is a measured and assured actor who seems to inhabit any role no matter how implausible. Here he is a great foil against a very different Sykes who names him ‘George’ as he cannot call him by his real name. Patinkin’s George is a very conservative character, being the first visitor policeman to make detective. He wears a suit and investigates by the book much to the displeasure of Sykes. He makes such a strong impression even though his character is so rigid. I could not make out Terrence Stamp in his makeup.
The newcomers have a differing physiology to humans and in every social group there are the criminals and kingpins who gravitate towards crime. Here the criminals are political, supposedly benevolent newcomers who want to break the prejudice against their kind but who are, in fact, peddling drugs and other sorts of crime that are already stock trade for humans (that is prostitution, organised crime, firearms and other such fun activities).
It is this drug, which looks like dishwashing liquid, that is central to the plot. Like any drug, it is the source of much crime but it also exposes a side of the newcomers that would turn them into a species that would prove alienating to humans.
All in all, this is a very standard mismatched cop buddies film. Some of the situations are unique, especially those that reflect on the aliens’ physiology, but there are not many surprises. They certainly don’t like sea water, they tend to take a fair few shells to incapacitate and their reproductive systems are in non-conventional places, but they think and act like us.
The situations are reasonably pedestrian, but it is well executed and the two leads are certainly charismatic. That is perhaps what makes this worth watching because even on other planets they seem to have the same vices we have here.
This is a generally good looking anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. It looks very ‘1980s’ with its reasonably drab colours compared to a modern feature, however it does have a very consistent quality with nice bright daytime scenes and good saturation. I felt that the night time scenes were the standout, with a dark yet detailed depiction of the LA streets. Much of the feature occurs at night and I was pleased that there wasn’t a hint of grey. Skin tones are excellent and I was surprised that there is also nary an incident of edge enhancement even though there are numerous instances where it would have been more than likely.
There are the usual problems like some isolated grain on distant daytime shots and the ever present aliasing on repeated patterns like the grilles on the battered unmarked police cars they all drive.
This feature has an odd audio configuration – a 384k Dolby Digital 4.1 setup like the old Dolby Pro Logic; that is a left, centre and right, but monophonic rear surround with an LFE channel.
The sound quality is good with a very ‘made for TV’ feel. Dialogue is very clear with only Caan perhaps stressing the vocal intelligibility. This is a very modern ADR track with vocals being the most important asset. Vocals can sound sometimes detached from the scene with that characteristic after-dub hollowness, however this is rare.
Music seems to have a bit more lower punch and more dynamism than TV, but it’s not a musical or memorable score. Surrounds are used sparingly in ambience for scenes like car chases, helicopters and noisy interiors like a nightclub. I could not detect much LFE activity except for perhaps large calibre gunshots and explosions of which there are many instances.