'Alien Nation' gives the audience a perfectly ordinary tale of murderous drug dealers and renegade cops and turns it all on its head by inventing a new race of beings.
This science-fiction thriller, starring James Caan as detective Matthew Sykes and Mandy Patinkin as Sykes's alien partner, Sam Francisco, is giddy with oddball twists on the tired old cops-and-robbers genre. The cast, including Terence Stamp as the alien ringleader of an evil drug operation, plays every situation with the right amount of unselfconscious humor.
Is 'Alien Nation' believable, with its freckle-headed and bald race of beings bred to adapt as slaves, living in Los Angeles in 1991? Absolutely not. Is is fun to watch the possibilities unfold, replete with alien drunken sprees on sour milk, and scenes where the aliens get to chide humans for their unlimited generosity and failure to live up to their ideals? Absolutely.
Part of the credit goes to the team responsible for creating and applying the alien's make-up effects (Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, John Rosengrant, Shane Mahan and Zoltan Elak). Part of the credit goes to a quick-witted script by Rockne S. O'Bannon, directed with real finesse by Graham Baker.
And part of the credit goes to Caan and Patinkin, who sail through this adventure with style and wit.
What brings this movie into its own, however, is its complete integration of science fiction and Hollywood action. 'Alien Nation' doesn't drown in cliche because it has too much fun with the notion of a futuristic odd couple: Sykes and Francisco. The actors set the tone for their off-beat relationship with a scene devoted to their names. The alien, given his name by earthlings growing weary of thinking up 300,000 new names, finally gets to remind Sykes that his name in the aliens' native tongue sounds like excrement and cranium. It's a slick piece of movie patter.
The pair are detectives forced to put aside their biases to solve a string of related murders, including that of Sykes's longtime partner, played by Roger Aaron Brown. The trail leads to a drug lab for a strong potion effective only on the aliens, a drug the former slave race was given to keep it submissive and pliant in their labors.
The re-invention of the drug on earth is the first threat to their culture, and Francisco works as hard to root out the source of the drug as he does to solve the murders.
There are the requisite chase seens, the ingenious murder weapons, the evil propogators of greed andhate. And somehow they don't bury you. In the end, it's the wit and heart of 'Alien Nation' that win you over.
This movie is rated R. The film contains scenes of violence and strong language.