Saturday, August 2, 2014

#187: Alien Nation (Graham Baker, 1988)

Strangely for a film that was only a modest financial success in 1988, Alien Nation inspired a television series (canceled after one season not because of low ratings but because the then-fledgling Fox network was on the verge of going broke), five TV movies, a comic book miniseries, and several novels. It's not even that clever of an idea. The movie is your basic odd-couple buddy-cop scenario, with our mismatched enemies-turned-friends on the trail of a big-shot drug pusher with connections to the upper echelons of big-wiggery, but this time, one of the buddy cops, as well as the villain, is an alien. Is your mind blown? In classic '80s style, however, the movie manages to be reasonably entertaining and likable without being especially distinctive, smart, or incisive. Damn you and bless you, the 1980s.
Set in the surprisingly grunge-less and New Jack swing-free near-future of 1991 (though an alien stripper does dance to a Jane's Addiction song), Alien Nation's Los Angeles of future past is full of immigrants from outer space, who are despised as much in the film as Central American children are by Republican pundits and the unwashed Facebookerati in the real life cartoon we're trapped in for now until Ebola kills us all. The aliens in the film were drugged and abused slaves on their home planet until making their one-way trip to Earth in a flying saucer in search of a better life. Called Newcomers by themselves and the press and "slags" by racists, the aliens have uneasily assimilated into American society and splintered into the various walks of human life, some more successfully than others. They are treated in the film the way Mexican and South American immigrants are treated in that part of life that is not entertainment product, except the aliens look like they are wearing leopard print pantyhose on their heads, and they can only get drunk on sour milk, need to eat raw food, and turn into bloody, slimy goop if they are submerged in salt water.
The film opens with a bit of explanation of the alien situation and then follows homicide detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan) and his partner Bill Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown). They're driving through a section of the city mostly populated by aliens and come across a robbery in progress. In the ensuing struggle, Tuggle is killed and Caan is injured. Instead of taking time off, he gets right back to work and volunteers to pair up with the city's first alien detective, Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), who Sykes calls "George" because he thinks his chosen human name is stupid. Sykes hates aliens, damn it, and only picks George because he thinks an alien cop can get him closer to the alien punks that killed his partner. Over time, Sykes learns the error of his bigoted ways and becomes friends with George after a bonding session at his house where the new partners get drunk off their ass partying to Michael Bolton records. Soon, the human and alien frenemies are in the midst of a heavy investigation involving alien big shot and secret drug pusher William Harcourt (Terence Stamp) and his hired alien and human thugs.
Some of this is very heavy-handed. The film's anti-racism message is the kind of simple sloganeering Hollywood's centrist pseudoliberals love to pat themselves on the back for delivering. It's a self-congratulatory loop of white people talking to white people (full disclosure -- I am a white people), flattering each other about how much they dislike racism without getting into any messy complexities or self-critiques about complicity with institutionalized systems and the privileges and unquestioned assumptions that come from that. In 2014 terms, the audience for this message is people who can easily digest gluten but pretend they need to cut it out of their diets. But that's not all. In classic Hollywood style, the film is all messages to all audiences (except for those audiences they always ignore).
The movie tells us that racism is bad but Reagan is great (though Nixon is still an embarrassment), that a few cops are jerks but most of them are wonderful, that racism can be cured by hanging with a buddy from one of those crazy minority groups, that the black guy is always the first one in the movie to get killed but racism is bad, that women are either supportive wives or pain-in-the-ass ex-wives but either way you don't want to waste much screen time on them, that everything will work out in the end and you will attend your daughter's wedding, that Michael Bolton's cover of "Dock of the Bay" is the same as Otis Redding's original, that drugs are terrible but booze is great, and so on. Oh yeah, medical examiners are always eating lunch in the cadaver room.
It sounds like I'm really beating up on this movie, and I guess I am, but I also kind of like this movie, too. It manages that neat '80s trick of being simultaneously slick and gritty, the action sequences (shootouts, car chases, fights, etc.) are very well done, and James Caan and (if) Mandy Patinkin (was a horse) have a nice chemistry even though (or maybe because) neither actor appears to be trying too hard. Maybe it's fogeyism on my part, but silly mainstream films from the '80s are so much easier to watch than silly mainstream films from the last couple decades. Even if I don't entirely respect an '80s film, I know I'm going to be entertained and I'm not going to feel like I got stuck in a theme park/strobe light museum for nearly three hours while a generically anonymous pretty person shouted in my ears while gently slapping me the whole time. Because that's what Hollywood movies are now, is what I'm saying.  

1 comment:

Matthew Bey said...

And don't forget the unaccountably Who's the Boss-style pervasiveness of the Alien Nation fan fic community.