It is interesting to me how there are movies that exist in my memory banks that I haven’t actually seen. What I mean is that there are some films that came out when I was young that were part of our collective culture. Maybe they were big box office successes, or maybe they were endlessly discussed in the media, or maybe they were just talked about over and over with my friends. Many of these films were actually watched by me, but some of them weren’t. Yet because they were discussed in my culture and clips were viewed in various TV shows, it feels like I’ve seen them.
Alien Nation was one such film. It is possible that I actually did watch it at some point, but I don’t have any specific memory of watching it and I couldn’t remember a single plot point as I watched it yesterday. The movie did spawn a short-lived television series so it is possible that I watched some of that. What I do remember is how the aliens looked with their big, bald heads, and the basic buddy cop banter the two leads regularly engaged in.
Within this world, an alien spaceship landed on Earth sometime in the recent past. It was filled with a race of aliens that were bred by another, unseen race of aliens, as a slave class. These aliens are known as “Newcomers” by polite society and “Slags” by the less polite. The world’s governments have decided to welcome Newcomers and the United States has made them citizens. However, a great many humans are disturbed by the Newcomers. They are disgusted by the way they look, what they eat, how they get drunk on sour milk, and don’t always speak good English, etc. Often Newcomers have to take lowly jobs and they tend to be poor and often live, grouped together in run-down sections of the city.
The metaphor is not hard to understand. The film is not too subtle in this regard. The Newcomers are stand-ins for any number of minorities and immigrants that have historically been mistreated over the years.
In the film, James Caan plays Det. Matthew Sykes, is good at his job, if a bit old-school at it, and quite bigoted towards the Newcomers. But when his partner is killed by some Newcomers he agrees to take newly promoted Newcomer Sam Francisco (one of the films recurring gags is that humans got bored naming so many Newcomers when they arrived that they started giving them joke names – Har Har). He’s played by the always wonderful Mandy Patinkin.
Naturally, over the course of the investigation, Sykes learns to respect and even care for his partner and thus learns the important lesson that racism is bad.
As I said the messaging is really heavy-handed. The Newcomers have a distinctive look (which basically amounts to some prosthetic headgear) and are given a few distinguishing traits like getting drunk on sour milk and eating uncooked meat, but the film doesn’t delve very deeply into who they are.
Mostly the film is a typical 1980s buddy-cop action flick with an alien as the straight-laced foil to the wild, no-nonsense partner. It more or less works as that. I have great nostalgia for those types of films and this one landed neatly in that category. It disappoints because it could have been so much more interesting, but if you take it for what it gives, it isn’t bad.