Judge Harold Gervais opens up and shares his warm fuzzies about this 1980s sci-fi flick. "Prosthetic potatoes"? Sounds like I might have to give it a spin.
A moderate hit in 1988 and the basis for the television series of the same name is director Graham Baker's (The Recruit), Alien Nation. Looking painfully like a Lethal Weapon rip-off with a twist, Alien Nation is not a film that has aged gracefully.
For their part Fox has done another fine job with this release. The basics are all here—excellent video, very good audio and enough extra features so that the disc cannot be called bare bones.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1994 and it is three years since the Newcomer space ship landed. Newcomers are a race of genetically engineered slave laborers who have come to Earth in peace. Able to live and adapt to the most hostile of work environments, they are able to labor in many places humans cannot, thus making them ideal workers for the American economy.
Recently released from quarantine, the Newcomers have begun to assimilate themselves into all areas of human society. One such place is the Los Angeles Police Department, where Detective Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin—Dick Tracy, The Princess Bride), has been partnered up with Sergeant Matthew Sykes (James Caan—The Way of the Gun, Bottle Rocket).
A self acknowledged bigot, Sykes would not have volunteered for duty with Francisco if his partner had not been killed the previous night in a Newcomer section of town, otherwise known as Slagtown. Seems Sykes' partner was shot in a Slagtown hold up and Sykes himself was attacked by some kind of super-powered Newcomer. Not one to follow the rules, and even though he forbidden to work on his partner's murder, Sykes assumes since Francisco is a Newcomer he will be able to help him track down the killer more quickly. Quicker than you can say "buddy movie," the two men begin to respect and care for one another. Bonding over vodka and sour milk, the two find that despite their physical differences, as men they really aren't that far apart.
Their investigation leads them to frightening discovery and a piece of Newcomer history Francisco, renamed George by Sykes, would rather the human race never find out about. Seems there is a highly additive drug about to enter the Newcomer black market. This drug boosts their strength, and if taken in large amounts can literally turn them into unstoppable monsters. Racing against the clock, the partners attempt to hunt down the person responsible for so many deaths. These two men are intent on finding him and destroying the drug he possesses so that the Newcomers do not become feared and hated more than they already are.
One of the biggest advantages of science fiction movies and literature in general is its ability to take social problems and cast them in a new light. Certainly many of the best episodes of "The Twilight Zone" or "Star Trek" were social allegories, speaking with a resonance otherwise unthinkable in a story set in a modern or current setting. Here, the issue is race relations. Now that I have removed the hammer that was beating the top of my head in, I can write more clearly about Alien Nation, or as I like to call it, So Many Clichés, So Little Time.
At a running time of 90 minutes, it is kind of tough to get overloaded by bad writing. I knew I was in trouble when, in the opening scene, as Sykes is riding with his first partner (a black man, of course), they are discussing how Sykes' daughter is getting married in a few days and he does not want to go because of the bitter divorce. How many times have we all seen the burned out and embittered cop taking on the fresh faced rookie, showing him/her the ropes while in the process learning something about himself? How many times I ask…today?
There is nothing in Alien Nation that is subtle or understated. Take for instance the introduction of Terence Stamp (Wall Street, The Limey). We know he is the bad guy of the movie from the first second we see him because he is being honored at a civic function, and we see that he laughs but does not smile. Dead giveaway right there. That and one of the guys who tried to kill Sykes is there as his bodyguard. I notice the little things, so you don't have to. Thank me. It's a shame too. You would think an actor as good as Stamp would try to be something other than sullen and evil. Let me tune you in on a little clue. He doesn't.
There are other actors who portray the Newcomers or slags but very few stand out for any reason other than the huge prosthetic potatoes on their heads. Except of course, Mandy Patinkin. He plays the good cop/Newcomer. I know he is a good guy because, like James Caan, he gets his name over the title of the movie. In his defense—this is a justice theme web site after all—he manages to do other things besides act sullen and evil. He gets to act naïve and goofy. Plus he shows he can get loaded just like the rest of L.A.'s finest. Well, not quite, I mean, these guys get plastered on sour milk. Oh and he gets to blow away perps just like other police officers, so that makes him heroic as well. I know I feel safer already. In fairness, Patinkin is not that bad and he is never given an opportunity to sing, so thank your stars for small favors.
James Caan. The mere mention of his name conjures images of some great movies. The Godfather. Honeymoon in Vegas. Thief. In the case of Alien Nation, I think all the research Mr. Caan did was find out the number of the director and phone his performance in. This being the cutthroat world of Hollywood, I'm sure the call was collect. Too bad these were the days before Eva Savelot and Arsenio Hall, as he could have saved a buck or two. [Editor's Note: Or save the people he calls a buck or two. That's what bugs me about those commercials…why worry about saving money when someone else is footing the bill?]
I suppose I should speak about those responsible for Alien Nation. I would pick on director Graham Baker…but this is the same guy who directed Omen III: The Final Conflict and I'm sure he can do without the extra humiliation. I was sitting there trying to find some spark of originality in the direction, some moment of pure cinema, and all I could think of was how painful a sour milk hangover must be. And the morning breath. I'll do us all a favor and move on from that train of thought.
The screenplay is credited to a guy named Rockne S. O'Bannon. I keep thinking he was Dan O'Bannon. Dan O'Bannon wrote Dark Star and Alien and outside of the O'Bannon part there should have been nothing else to confuse me. Dan O'Bannon wrote some good movies while Rockne S. O'Bannon helped create "SeaQuest DSV." Thinking about that, I suppose he has been picked on enough as well.
Gale Anne Hurd is one of the producers on Alien Nation, and she should know better. She was the producer on a couple of little projects called The Terminator, The Abyss, and Aliens. She was once married to the director of those films, James Cameron. I just remembered she also produced Virus, so between that and her taste in husbands I'm sure she hangs her head in enough shame.
The disc…please let me talk about the disc.
Besides giving you all information you can use, I am also polite. I say "please" and "thank you" at least once every day.
One of the first things I ask about any DVD is, "does this disc have French Dolby Surround?" In the case of Alien Nation the answer is, "Sir, yes sir!" The disc also has subtitles in English, French and Spanish, which means I can watch Alien Nation with words I don't understand.
I need to check this feature out. It might be an improvement.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fox was once a studio scorned by DVD fans far and wide for the shabby way they treated their movies and fans of the format. Watching Alien Nation, I longed for the good old days.
I wished that the anamorphic transfer that preserved the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 would have been non-anamorphic and flawed. Alas, colors were found to be strong, with depth and great detail. Skin tones were natural and life like, while the film's numerous dark and nighttime scenes were rock solid and once more showed great delineation. I thought I had Fox when I noticed a subtle amount of film grain through out the presentation, but found out later that Alien Nation was shot in Super 35, so this appearance was natural and an accurate depiction of what the movie looked like in the theater. We often hear of the destruction of so many of our classic films and the desperate need they have for restoration. Thinking of that made me wish someone had put out their cigarette on the negative. Unfortunately, it was not to be as the image is virtually free of any kind of imperfections. Damn you, Fox!
The sound is Dolby Digital 4.1. For Alien Nation I think it is four numbers too many. The sound is very front loaded, although the mono surround channel does get a good work out from time to time. Bass on the .1 channel is limited but present, and Curt Sobel's score is clearly heard. That is not a good thing. Dialogue, if anyone cares to listen to it, is well mixed with the movie's numerous sound effects. The mix is good but far from state-of-the-art. After watching Alien Nation ask yourself, do you really care?
The best special feature this disc offers is a production featurette that was produced at the time of the initial release of Alien Nation. In under 15 minutes you can learn every major plot point and character motivation the movie has. In other words, watch it and you can return this disc to Blockbuster, demanding to be given your money back. What a deal that is…save yourself a little over an hour of your precious time and stick it to that national video chain that is doing everything it can to screw over the regular guy and slow the growth of the DVD format. Now that is what I call a good day!
It's been a couple of hours since I sat through Alien Nation, and already the details are starting to fade from memory. Boy, am I glad this disc was a studio screener or I would be really, really pissed.
Run and hide from the boredom that is Alien Nation, or at least wait until it shows late one night on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Guilty with a capital G. All involved on Alien Nation are sentenced to hard labor on Ceti Alpha 6. Fox is thanked for another great looking and sounding disc. The question this court has to ask is, why? This hanging judge is done for today. My courtroom is now dismissed.
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