ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON OCT. 28, 1988
By Steve Newton
Looking at the credits for Alien Nation, fans of the horror/sci-fi thriller genres could be forgiven for foaming at the mouth. The movie was produced by Gale Anne Hurd, whose Aliens and The Terminator were landmark films in the annals of fright cinemas.
Then there’s director Graham Baker, whose Australian-made thriller Impulse was one of the most shocking things to come up from Down Under. Screenwriter Rockne S. O’Bannon has written episodes for the Amazing Stories and Twilight Zone TV shows, and director of photography Adam Greenberg helped capture the stunning look of that classy vampire/western Near Dark.
Add to that the makeup artists who created the effects for Starman, Predator, and Mask, and you’ve got the makings of one wild genre pic. So what went wrong with Alien Nation?
The movie starts off the intriguing idea that 300,000 immigrant “newcomers” from another planet have been integrated into human society. The movie is set in Los Angeles in 1991, when Rambo 6 is playing in the theatres, and right away the plight of the extraterrestrials is compared to that of human aliens.
“Why can’t they go to Russia or somewhere?” asks one disgruntled man-on-the-street. And when tough-guy cop James Caan’s partner gets shot by machine-gun-toting alien bandits, his own low opinion of the “job-stealing” newcomers drops several notches.
Into the scene steps a recently promoted good-guy alien cop played by Mandy (The Princess Bride) Patinkin who, after initial brush-offs, eventually wins the confidence and friendship of Caan. The two band together to find the killers of Caan’s partner, and this is when the interesting bad-guys-from-space premise gets overshadowed by a cliched, Dirty Harry-style romp with enormous guns, too-long car chases, and bigoted cops.
The aliens don’t seem alien enough–physically or emotionally–so they aren’t very scary, and there’s little information given about what their previous planet was like. With the sci-fi and horror aspects toned down, Alien Nation becomes little more than a cop show with a twist–and one that will satisfy only the most gullible of action fans.