Alien Nation

Question: Which nation was not invited to the just-completed Olympic Games?

Answer: Alien Nation.

That’s the joke of a recent coming-attractions trailer for the new sci-fi thriller, which suggests the sense of humor this movie has about itself. The film isn’t as clever as the trailer.

But Alien Nation does present an intriguing new future. It’s set a few years from now, after a lost space ship has unloaded its passengers in Los Angeles. The humanoid creatures, known as “newcomers” (but unofficially called “slags”), have in many ways assimilated themselves into society; they’ve learned English, gotten jobs.

But most of them live in the ghetto, and are discriminated against. “Slag town” is a hotbed of violence; cop James Caan, a slag-basher to begin with, loses his partner in a dispute among the newcomers.

Caan is assigned a new partner, and of course it’s the first newcomer (Mandy Patinkin) in the L.A. detective force. With their testy relationship, the film slides into the buddy-cop movie formula, and delivers the expected banter and eventual grudging friendship. There’s nothing new about this angle of the movie, although both actors are watchable (the resourceful Patinkin is encased in the newcomers’ makeup, which includes a distended skull flecked with giraffe-like spots).

The underlying theme of Alien Nation is bigotry; like much science fiction, it deals with a social issue, in this case racial discrimination, in an oblique way. The rest of the plot revolves around drugs, a blue goo that drives the newcomers crazy. (Maybe the aliens belonged at the Olympics after all.) But the best thing about Rockne O’Bannon’s original screenplay is the newcomer culture that it describes.

The newcomers, for instance, have no interest in booze. But sour milk—a coupla belts of that stuff, and they’re blotto. Also, they can’t touch sea water, or they disintegrate. But they can breathe methane and not be affected, which is why they get jobs at refineries. And in their language, the name of James Caan’s character means “excrement cranium,” or… well, you can translate that one.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1988

It became a TV series for a while, and O’Bannon went on to create Farscape for TV.

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