Tuesday, December 08, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Alien Nation (1988)

Alien Nation -- The Saturn-award winning, 1988 genre film from director Graham Baker (initially titled "Outer Heat") -- likely owes its very existence to two bills signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

The first such law is the Immigration Reform Control Act, which officially granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants who had been in the United States prior to January 1, 1982 and offered them "access to many of the benefits of a free and open society."

The second pertinent law was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, also of 1986, a 1.7 billion dollar initiative which set mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenders, and financed new American prisons to the tune of 97 million dollars (though 200 million dollars were also directed to drug education efforts.) This was all part of Reagan's escalation of the "War on Drugs," which also included Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" public relations campaign.

In terms of pop-culture trends, Alien Nation was part of the "buddy" cop movie wave that proved extremely popular in the mid-to-late eighties, and universally combined two unlike personalities into one seamless crime-solving, law enforcement unit. Among the signature "buddy" films of the era were 48 Hours (1983), Lethal Weapon (1987), Dragnet (1987), Red Heat (1988), and Tango & Cash (1989).

In understanding these contexts, one can detect how Alien Nation actually serves as a valuable sci-fi allegory for America in the late-1980s, one that involves the integration of an ethnic minority onto our shores; diagrams the use of illegal narcotics in that same community, and is expressed, -- perhaps surprisingly -- in the popular vernacular of the day; the buddy cop/crime thriller format.

They Have Landed: Illegal Aliens in a Literal Sense

Alien Nation commences with a startling event of the year 1988. While Reagan is still commander-in-chief, a vast alien saucer lands in the Mojave Desert. We see it all happen via grainy, documentary-style news footage. The saucer carries a "slave race" of 250,000 extraterrestrials

In a televised address to the nation, President Reagan notes that America has "come to a turning point" and offers the quarter-million aliens a brand of intergalactic amnesty...essentially putting them on the fast path to American citizenship.

By 1991, the Newcomers are integrated -- at least on the surface -- into American society: attending our schools; acquiring jobs, purchasing homes...even forming their own communities, like the urban "Slag Town."

But as veteran human cop, Matthew Sykes (James Caan) soon learns, the Newcomers also boast some unseemly secrets about their past. When Sykes teams with the first Newcomer detective in the LAPD, Sam Francisco -- nicknamed George (Mandy Patankin), he uncovers a criminal cartel bent on supplying a dangerous Newcomer narcotic to the aliens. This drug turns Newcomers into steroid-pumped, aggressive killers.

You Got Your Green Card, Buddy?

Rockne S O'Bannon's Alien Nation screenplay draws strong parallels between the Newcomer alien minority and real minorities in 1980s America. Without seeming heavy-handed, the film gazes at the ideas of immigration and integration from virtually every angle conceivable.

For instance -- as we see from news footage "man on the street" interviews -- the average American of the far-flung year of 1991 (!) worries about his place in the new, post-Newcomer economy. "There goes my job future," one college student laments. He also worries that the Newcomers -- who are fast learners -- will do better in school; a cdirect omment on some white fears about the intelligence of Asian students in the 1980s. There are even references here to the "English Only" movement this country saw in the 1990s, particularly in a poster which reads "We Teach English to the Universe."

Later, we also learn of bureaucratic efforts to enforce integration, an "early advancement program" that places Newcomers in prominent positions (in the police force, for example...), but also creates resistance from "regular" Americans; who feel that the aliens are being given special or preferential treatment. Essentially, this is a metaphor for affirmative action; another hot-button issues of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Inevitably, entrenched racism is also part of this process of integration. At one point, a Newcomer realizes that Sykes -- a self-professed bigot -- didn't recognize him...that he can't tell the individial aliens apart; an old racist chestnut revived and demonstrated in practice (a "they all look alike to me..." kind-of-thing).

Some of the detectives in the L.A.P.D. are also quite jealous of Francisco's fast promotion, and paint graffiti on his car reading E.T.P.D.

There's even a joke here about uh...some ethnic minorities being particularly ...well-endowed. George sees a condom at one point, and expresses disbelief that a human...member could fit inside something so tiny. Also, Sykes is tantalized by the idea of interracial sex with a Newcomer female; a stripper representing the new, the forbidden, the exotic. It's also clear that integration has its downside for the newcomers: they live in low-income housing, stick mostly to their own areas and clubs (like "Encounters") and face prejudice on a daily basis. And George even faces charges of race betrayal from his own kind. "You smell like a human," one Newcomer snarls at him. Yep, he's the Uncle Tom of the Newcomers.

Again, the fast-paced Alien Nation hardly belabors such social points, but it covers -- in broad strokes -- the very process of integration occurring in such cities as Los Angeles (the movie's setting...) following Reagan's 1986 amnesty. Yet the message is ultimately -- and positively -- one of brotherhood. Despite their vast differences, George and Sykes (whose name means, in the Newcomer language, means "Excrement Cranium") eventually become partners and friends. Their mutual belief in law and order -- and loyalty -- binds them and sets aside cultural differences.

Remember: You're Out There Setting an Example for Our Community

The War on Drugs is also a major undercurrent in Alien Nation. The film's narrative involves the resurrection of a potent alien narcotic that was used on the saucers (by "the Controllers") to keep the Newcomers in line. This drug was, in fact, the only pleasure available for this slave race of "hard laborers."

If conspiracy-minded, you might link this idea of population control via narcotics to the belief by some in the black community that the CIA actively distributed drugs in the African-American population to neuter demands for civil rights, and so forth. I'm not saying that allegation has any truth behind it; only that Alien Nation has a resonance of it as one part of its multi-cultural tapestry.

Furthermore, the idea of immigrants arriving on our shores and hidinga terrible secret is not something invented from whole cloth either. Here, the existence of the alien narcotic -- which George wants to keep secret -- reveals that the Newcomers are, in some ways, a race of drug addicts. If you look back to 1980 and the Mariel Boat Lift (the context for Brian De Palma's Scarface [1983]), you might remember that many of the immigrants that arrived on our shores in that event had actually been incarcerated criminals in Cuba. In America, some of those Cuban criminals went on to became drug dealers. That path is not entirely unlike William Harcourt's (Terence Stamp) journeyin Alien Nation. He's a powerful Newcomer who attempts to gain power and wealth through illegal means: narcotics.

I don't believe Alien Nation is a truly great film...but it is a good -- and memorable -- one. Ultimately, the film descends, during the final act, into car chases and foot chases, and relies more on action than the stimulating ideas bubbling beneath the surface. Also, the hackneyed "cop"/police-procedural aspects of the film tend to age it. Yet as an intriguing, sci-fi time-capsule for America in 1988, the film is an invaluable and influential work. Since immigration reform is a big issue even today, Alien Nation still has a tremendous amount of currency.

In truth, many science-fiction fans actually preferred the short-lived TV adaptation of Alien Nation (1989) to this film, in no small part because it went into further detail about Newcomer culture and had the opportunity to diagram the relationships between characters beyond cliches.

Notably, this summer's District 9 exhibits interesting similarities to the Alien Nation franchise too, and recently there was word that Sy Fy (once the Sci-Fi Channel) is re-imagining this property as a new series. So we can look forward to the Newcomers' second arrival in the days ahead...


  1. I would agree that this is a good not great film as well. I caught up with it again a few months ago after not having seen it for years and it's aged quite well. My fave part is when James Caan's character is chasing down the guys who killed his partner and he comes upon a tunnel and peering into the darkness you don't see anything at first but hear something coming at him very fast and very angry. It's an effective moment and quite full of tension. That one always stuck in my mind.

  2. I had forgotten how explicitly political this show was.

    When I first watched it, it struck me (as so many, if not virtually all shows in this genre do) as a show with a fundamental concept that could have been so much more. (Similar to my criticism of "V"). It could have discussed alien philosophy, theology, culture, music, art, etc. Instead, it felt rather hollow, with uninterested people not showing an iota of curiosity about *the* seminal world event--the discovery of another space-fairing intelligent species now living among us. But it wasn't just the characters who lacked curiosity, it was the writers.

    One has a potentially infinite tapestry upon which to weave an almost magical story, and what do you do with it?? Ignore it.

    Sad, actually.