Alien Nation may be slightly better known as a television show, which first starting airing in 1989. However, it began life as a film, which was a medium-sized hit in October 1988. The series was one of the first television shows on then-new Fox Network and was cancelled after one season. It did live on through the ’90s with a series of TV movies, and Jeff Nichols has recently signed on to write and direct a remake.
The film opens with the title card: “The City of Los Angeles in 1991. They have landed.” What has landed is 300,000 enslaved alien beings who make Los Angeles their home after their spaceship touches down in the desert.
James Caan plays Matthew Sykes, a detective bigoted against what are referred to as “The Newcomers.” His partner dies at the hands of some Newcomers in a robbery. Sykes agrees to partner up with a Newcomer, Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), who has become a detective only because there has been a similar homicide to the one that took his partner. Sykes is forbidden to investigate it any further, but sees this as a possible opportunity and gives Sam the name “George” to go by.
There is an obvious animosity between the both of them, but through the course of the film, a mutual respect grows. They soon start investigating the underground of the Newcomers together. The duo eventually stumbles upon a Newcomer businessman, William Harcourt (Terrence Stamp), who may be involved with the murders.
The film’s plot takes certainly from In The Heat of the Night, which writer Rockne S. O’Bannon gladly admitted: he had got his start writing for anthology shows like Amazing Stories and the ’80s The Twilight Zone. The film uses a sci-fi premise to deal with racism, which isn’t a new thing although outside of sci-fi literature, it’s rarely used in film. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and John Sayles’ indie Brother From Another Planet were two of the very few sci-fi films that dealt with racism as a key subject. Even post-Alien Nation there haven’t been that many, with District 9 being the most obvious example (a film clearly influenced by Alien Nation.)
Given the political situation in the US at the moment, with Donald Trump as president and Black Lives Matter, it’s almost a no-brainer to remake the film now. It’s also one of the few films which are very good but also leave room to do something different and interesting with a remake. However, the political situation wasn’t that different when the original was made in many regards, and of course, it exploded in L.A. a few years later with the Rodney King riots.
Alien Nation remains one of the better sci-fi films to come out in the ’80s. It arrived in the same year as They Live!, which is a very different take on aliens living amongst us but even more political. James Caan may not consider it one of his better films, but he is wrong, and the chemistry between him and Mandy Patinkin is undeniable. Terrence Stamp is also clearly having a blast in his role. It was shot by Adam Greenberg, who is responsible for the look of many classic films of the ’80s, such as The Terminator.
101 Films has put together a Dual-Format release that is fairly barebones. It features no chapters or trailer, but it does include a mini replica of the film poster.