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Alexandra DuPont's ALIEN NATION DVD Review

Published at: March 28, 2001, 4:50 p.m. CST

El Cosmico here, taking a break from matters to put up our good ol' pal Alexandra DuPont's review of ALIEN NATION. As always, special thanks to Ms. DuPont, and all of our friends over at DVD Journal. All around good folk.

Very well, here's Alex, with another fine review:

Review by Alexandra DuPont                    


"You humans are very curious to us. You invite us to live among you in an atmosphere of equality that we've never known before. You give us ownership of our own lives for the first time, and you ask no more of us than you do of yourselves. I hope you understand how special your world is. I hope you understand how unique a people you humans are. Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to us that so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves."

— Sam Francisco, a.k.a. "George" (Mandy Patinkin), Alien Nation



For some reason, I've always enjoyed the above quote: It's the only bit of dialogue in the sci-fi/buddy-cop flick Alien Nation that sticks with me in any way. It's not great writing or anything — it's just that, as delivered by Patinkin in potato-head alien makeup, it radiates the sort of earnestness and broad-brush philosophizing that you don't find much in geek cinema anymore (save in Gattaca or Contact, the only decent scraps of "Message Sci-Fi" in the past several years). "George"'s line, uttered during a drunken bonding session with his bigoted partner Sykes (James Caan), is something you might hear in '60s Trek or one of those low-budget jobs from the '50s — it's sci-fi comfort food, you know?

Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to me that Alien Nation is such an aggressively mediocre, by-the-numbers action flick. It's a triumph of high concept, after all, imagining spacemen who crash-land on Earth as just another immigrant class trying to get ahead — but this killer idea, Caan, Patinkin and the great Terrence Stamp are funneled into a TV-series plot involving bickering cops on a murder case. (I think it's no coincidence that this movie did spawn a TV series, BTW, which you can occasionally catch on the Sci-Fi Channel in syndication; TV was probably the plan all along.)

Anyway. Here's the breakdown:

*          *          *

I. The Story

It's 1993 — in this 1988 film, "the future." I'm reminded here of something William Gibson told me once in an interview: "Well, that's kind of the poignant thing about science fiction is that it does date — it all has kind of a 'sell-by' date." If that's true, then "Alien Nation" is well and truly curdled.

A couple of years back (in 1991, still "the future") a flying saucer full of alien slaves crash-landed in the desert. Welcomed as immigrants, the freed "Newcomers" are stronger and smarter than humans (though we only get to see the "stronger" part), and they quickly form a significant American underclass — complete with their own L.A. ghetto, ethnic-slur designation, and bigoted abuse at the hands of the gendarmes. When a cop (Caan) loses his partner in a gunfight with some Newcomers, he teams up with America's first alien homicide detective (Patinkin) to catch the perps. En route, they uncover a plot by an alien socialite (Stamp) to introduce a drug problem into the Newcomer populace.

Yes, it's a terribly unsubtle race-relations allegory — written (by the improbably named Rockne S. O'Bannon) using a big, fat Rod Serling Metaphor Pencil the size of a horse's leg. Not that there's anything wrong with that: The ability to craft unsubtle allegories and get away with it is one of sci-fi's chief pleasures. But that's no excuse for a plot and dialogue that takes every possible opportunity to do the most proletariat-mollifying, obvious thing.

I'd imagine the following is the most succinct way to prove how clichéd (and ultimately uninteresting) Alien Nation really is:

*          *          *

II. The Been-There-Done-That Plot Points as Described in the Alien Nation DVD's Chapter Headings

I suppose these are spoilers, if you can in fact "spoil" a story this clichéd. My additional comments are in parentheses:

  1. They Have Landed
  2. A Shoot-out (in which the hero's partner is killed)
  3. Backup (Caan meets Patinkin; you may be surprised to hear that they initially don't get along)
  4. A New Partner (an awkward meeting in the chief's office! Astonishing!)
  5. One Big Gun (a variation on the shooting-range sequence found in every single '80s buddy-cop film)
  6. Finding Connections
  7. Asking Questions
  8. The Girlfriend (in which the gangster's moll — get this — tries to seduce the cop, the only difference being that the gangster's moll looks like she's had a mottled Easter egg Photoshopped onto her head)
  9. Drinking (the reluctant-partners bonding scene, quoted at this review's outset)
  10. The Beach (where the arch-villain, wearing a tuxedo, has his minions dispatch of an uncooperative subject)
  11. The Drug
  12. Drug Bust (in which our heroes are pushed "over the edge" and "take the law into their own hands")
  13. Metamorphosis (a showdown sequence set in — you guessed it — a shipyard, at night)
  14. Rescue (alien cop makes risky sacrifice, saves drowning partner, cements buddy bond)
  15. The Wedding
  16. End Titles


*          *          *

III. What's good? Anything?

(1) The title. It's a really good title. And there are some very big guns.

(2) The makeup's not bad, either — although Terrence Stamp, who's supposed to be a charismatic Newcomer with a shady double life, instead looks merely uncomfortable, like he has a small tricycle lodged in his transverse colon.

(3) The charming interplay of Caan and Patinkin. This isn't Caan's best work by a long shot, but he's got a genial smirk on his face throughout and makes for a fine slob; and Patinkin, encased in mummifying head latex and hulking body padding, is just likable as hell, nuanced, even — no easy feat, given what he's working against.

(4) The aliens have Americanized names plucked from history and pop culture. One henchman is named Rudyard Kipling. That's kind of funny.

*          *          *

IV. And the extras?

This is a nearly bare-bones disc, but what's here is sort of interesting.

  1. First off, there's a 6:40 Featurette, probably made to fill the broadcast gaps at HBO or something. It's a nice little time capsule from a slightly more naive time in movie marketing, featuring a description of Patinkin's character as, and I quote, "a boy-next-door alien." Caan also keeps calling the aliens "potato heads," with Patinkin piling on. Neither of them seems to be taking matters very seriously.
  2. Then there's a 3:35 Behind the Scenes clip, seemingly raw broadcast video dumped onto the disc, of English director Graham Baker (wearing a black fedora and Cosby sweater and looking like a first-class middle-aged dork) directing a couple of action scenes. Best moment: Caan razzing Baker when the director "acts out" a scene Caan is about to perform: "I don't have to do it like that, do I?"
  3. There's a murky but scratch-free trailer with the following voiceover (performed by that gravely-tongued voiceover fellow everyone used in the '80s): "Inside an alien world of violence, desire and power, beyond their darkest fears, lies an evil beyond imagination." Well, not really.
  4. There are also three TV spots and five "Fox Flix" original theatrical trailers: The Abyss (widescreen), Aliens (pan-and-scan), Enemy Mine (pan-and-scan), Independence Day (widescreen), and, best of all, the supremely goony, pretentious trailer for Zardoz (pan-and-scan) — which features a booming voice yelling "ZARDOZ!" over and over again, plus the immortal line "Go forth ... and kill!"


That's it. Save your money for Zardoz, or something.

— Alexandra DuPont
dupont@dvdjournal.com

Two Stars

  • Color
  • Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
  • Single-sided, single-layered disc
  • Dolby Digital 4.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)
  • English, Spanish and French subtitles
  • Featurette (6:40)
  • Behind-the-scenes short (3:35)
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Three TV spots
  • "Fox Flix" trailers for The Abyss, Aliens, Enemy Mine, Independence Day, and Zardoz
  • Keep-case


Thanks as always, Alex.

-Dave Alvarado, El Cosmico.

elcosmico@aintitcool.com

Readers Talkback

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  • March 28, 2001, 5:25 p.m. CST

    First!!!

    by ZocaloHobo

    Just had to say that.....but Alien Nation wasnt that bad of a movie.....Typical "B" status...At least its not Battlefield Earth...:)

  • March 28, 2001, 6:32 p.m. CST

    Geek credibility is immediately called into question

    by Village Idiot

    The improbably named Rockne S. O'Bannon is most definitely the creative force behind the geekly venerated sci-fi show Farscape. ***** If Alien Nation and Enemy Mine were to get into a drunken brawl in the parking lot of TGIFridays on a Tuesday night, who would win?

  • March 28, 2001, 8:09 p.m. CST

    I agree with alexandra, and I want to have her love-child.

    by Art-man

    Yeah, Ms. Dupont is the most literate movie geek on-line, and is a great writer. I mostly agree with her on this one, and not just because the mere thought of her makes me hard. Alien Nation WAS a great idea that was poorly executed. The series was better, in that the Newcomers' culture was more fully explored. It even featured an "alien" main title theme and "alien" credits. Cool! Rock-hard, Alexandra, in case you're interested. Heh, heh...

  • March 28, 2001, 10:33 p.m. CST

    Altered Movie

    by dpc01

    It would be interesting to compare the film with it's initial version, called OUTER HEAT. It was a finished film, with a score by Jerry Goldsmith, which was then partially re-shot,heavily re-edited, and re-scored and turned into ALIEN NATION. The entire finale, as well as the whole ocean-water-is-acid angle I believe, was introduced in the new version. And Terrance Stamp supposedly hated the makeup so much that he refused to wear the character's mutated makeup for the finale, so a stuntman has to take over.

  • March 28, 2001, 11:38 p.m. CST

    A.DuP. responds: Will I gain back any "geek credibility"....

    by Alexandra.DuPont

    ... if I point out that this same improbably named Mr. Rockne S. O'Bannon is the fellow who wrote the excellent episode of that '80s-revival "Twilight Zone" where the fellow finds that the English language is evolving into gibberish around him? Remember that one? One geek-literate reader informed me of that recently -- and also related that, based on the strength of that episode, no less a personage than H. Ellison criticized O'Bannon for squandering his talent on "Alien Nation." (Producing credits on, Good Lord, "Seaquest DSV" followed for Mr. O'B.) But now that O'Bannon's a force behind the marvelously goony, super-hard sci-fo of "Farscape," goody goody: Perhaps he's got his *ganas* back. BTW: The "Outer Heat" story in another Talk Back was fascinating; anyone have any more info on that? I'd be interested to hear what was cut and re-shot....

  • March 29, 2001, 1:07 a.m. CST

    But my favorite Rockne S. O'Bannon TZ was...

    by Toby O Notoby

    The one where the writer is haunted by these evil little gremlins. They take over his life until he is scared to leave the house and can't even write. He finally confronts them, screaming "What do you want out of me?!?" One of them says, in a fairly pleasent voice, "We just want you to write about us, Mr. O'Bannon". The guy sits down at his typewriter and begins to peck. As he does, the gremlins disappear. Fade to black. Fade up Super: "Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon". Pretty sweet.

  • March 29, 2001, 1:54 a.m. CST

    Alien Nation = Another red-headed stepchild of Mr. James Cameron

    by LlGHTST0RMER

    Somebody, somewhere was able to connect Big Jim to this film. Apparently, he was an uncredited script doctor. Kind of makes sense... there are Cameron elements apparent all over this film. Gale Anne Hurd was one of the producers (and coincidentally, Jim's wife at the time,) plus Jim's good friend Stan Winston's makeup studio was responsible for the potato-head effects. Also, Jim's cinematographer extraordinaire, Adam Greenberg, was the DP. PLUS, for those that know who Van Ling is, you'll find his name in the credits as a dialogue coach and even playing one of the Newcomers as well. All that aside, Alexandra is right that the film suffers from total ordinary-ocity. (It's a word _now_.) I just finished watching the DVD, myself, before I logged on to AICN tonight, and I felt 1000% the same reaction that A du P did. The movie really is not as good as it could have / should have been. There were so many possibilities within the material, yet the story floated lamely in a narrative kiddie-pool of "buddy cop / drug czar" cliches. If James Cameron really WAS a writer on this film, (and boy, I'm sure he's awfully glad someone had to mention his name in this talkback, huh?) then something tells me it may not have been much more than an item on Gale's "honey-do" list around the house. ("Jim, I have to go to work now. Don't forget to call the plumber, take the car in for an oil change, fix the garbage disposal, and feed the cat. Oh, and can you see if there's anything you can do with that script I left on the coffee table? Thanks, hon.") And speaking of sci-fi's best romantic couples. . . Alexandra. . . your writing is like the song of a Greek muse. Your words are sweeter than an angel's smile. Say you'll be mine, Alexandra! Say we'll be together! Let me show true geek love! Eternally yours... Lightstormer.

  • March 29, 2001, 7:20 a.m. CST

    No Deleted or Extended Scenes???

    by StevenWarp

    That's the 2nd most enjoyable part of a DVD for me :(

  • March 29, 2001, 9:21 p.m. CST

    alien nation should have been a tv series first

    by yeah i'm a jerk!

    when i first saw this film i kept thinking that it would work better as a tv show. it was totally ironic that about a year later this became a reality. i know for a fact that i'm not the only one who enjoyed this show, since fox ended up having to bring it back in a series of tv movies. this is one time when a network resolved a cliffhanger from a canceled science fiction show. now if someone would resolve the cliffhanger from the final episode of "v" i'd be happy! yours truly, paco chaos!

  • March 31, 2001, 4:01 p.m. CST

    Alexandra...Yes. "Wordplay" was the name of that TZ ep, I believ

    by Art-man

    alexandra, I thought I was the only one to remember that great episode of the...er...old "new" Twilight Zone. It starred Robert Klein and Annie Potts. Remember that great scene where he rushes his son to the emergency room, and the large red sign reads "ELEPHANT?" And what is a young dog called? "Wednesday." A wonderful episode. I wonder if it was one of those that Wes Craven directed?