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Overall Rating

Awesome: 4%
Worth A Look44%
Average: 32%
Pretty Bad: 16%
Total Crap: 4%

2 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Alien Nation
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by Jack Sommersby

"The Best Sci-Fi Action Pic Since the Original 'Terminator'"
4 stars

Forget the who-cares TV show this movie insprired, for the movie itself is chock-full of whopping entertainment value.

James Caan and Mandy Patinkin star as Los Angeles policemen in true buddy-cop fashion in Alien Nation. Caan plays Matthew Sykes, the divorced, cynical, reckless of the two, with Patinkin playing San Francisco (yes, you read that right), the by-the-book, cordial one; the former keeps a messy apartment and lives alone and heavily smokes, the other lives in a house and is happily married with a young son and insists on placing a deodorizer in the car. Not surprisingly, Sykes isn't too keen on his new partner, yet, in true Movieland fashion, he grows to like him and they form a friendship. And here's the catch: Francisco is, literally, an alien from another planet.

It's the year 1994, and it's been three years since a spaceship washed up in Earth's atmosphere with a genetically-engineered race used for slave labor. Having a human form and an oversized head with what looks like liver spots for hair, they've integrated into America, are more intelligent and stronger than their human counterparts, and work common everyday jobs. They're also susceptible to violence. As the film opens, two of them in long black raincoats hold up a convenience store, kill the owner, and are pursued by Sykes and his longtime partner; the partner is killed and Sykes kills one of them but the other escapes. Wanting to nail the alien who killed his partner, he voluntarily though reluctantly teams up with Francisco, the first alien to be promoted to the rank of detective, to comb the "slag" underworld to find the culprit, and in the process they stumble upon a drug underworld involving a highly-potent narcotic that could destroy the aliens' existence on Earth.

The film's high concept is exploited to serviceable effect, with a good deal of humor installed into the proceedings that gives the formulaic screenplay some bounce. The aliens tend bar, take dance lessons, and work as high-dollar strippers just like humans; they eat raw meat, preferably beaver; and when they want to get drunk, rather than Jack Daniels, they down spoiled milk. They also speak very good English, yet when they regress back to their native tongue a neat popping sound emits from their mouths. They're a colorful bunch, and writer Rockne S. O'Bannon has devised and developed them as well as the buddy-cop formula will allow. Helping matters, too, is the remarkable make-up work. Usually a viewer can see where the natural skin ends and the latex begins. Not here. The aliens are an interesting but organic-looking bunch, with the superb f/x punctuating, not puncturing, their design.

The plotting, on the other hand, isn't anything to get out of bed for. There's the city's alien Mr. Big (played by the always-welcome Terrance Stamp) who's the villain of the piece and is taking out former associates of his so he can reap the profits of the drug trade all for himself. Sykes and Francisco (whom Sykes refers to as "George") must battle his henchmen before confronting him in a final confrontation where he's metamorphosed into a virtually-indestructible monster (though sea water is their only major weakness -- it acts upon them like hydrochloric acid to humans). So, no, the film isn't teeming with oodles of story ingenuity, and its structure is indeed too limiting, so the whole thing comes off like a second-rate The French Connection with Sam Slag rather than Popeye Doyle.

Still, the film is wonderfully entertaining and zips by like gangbusters, with one of the fastest-moving first hours I've ever seen, yet it never feels rushed and harried. Director Graham Baker gave the slight Omen III: The Final Conflict some atmosphere and form and managed to make his follow-up, Impulse, an eerie psychological thriller despite losing some control in the second half. Here, his handling is all-around assured and snappy, which isn't to be confused with intelligent -- he's serving the material as opposed to fastening upon it with a true filmmaker's vision and making it his own, but that's fine because the story is strictly a genre piece and isn't possessive of the juicy ingredients an auteur could make something substantial out of. The action sequences are finely staged, with a really terrific car chase late in the game that definitely employed some top-rank stunt people. Oh, the compositions have a TV-movie squareness to them, but Adam Greenberg, usually one of the most superficial of cinematographers, has lit everything superbly from the lighter to even the darker tones of the color scale.

And the acting is first-rate. Usually Caan is too self-indulgent for my taste, performing up a storm and improvising to a point where he seems to be performing more to the camera than acting with his co-stars. But as Sykes he's focused and absolutely ingratiating. It's not easy playing a grumpy policeman who dresses shabbily and is always spewing out insults, but Caan's work is fresh, and you never sense him reaching for effects. He gets a fine rapport going with Patinkin, who has the more difficult role of acting timid and friendly behind a head of heavy make-up. A trained theatrical actor, he uses his expressive voice to fabulous effect, projecting a distinct personality through dexterous inflection and an actor's gusto. The two make a fantastic duo that almost transcends cliche, so when they have a melting-of-the-ice drinking scene together, it plays out without strain. These two thespians working at the top of their game give Alien Nation a welcome personable dimension that lifts it above other entries in its subgenre and qualifies it as a minor classic that lends itself to repeat viewings that never fail to please. It's a winner.

The kind of rollicking good time Hollywood doesn't afford us nearly as much as it should.

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originally posted: 12/16/06 10:20:29
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell nothing special 2 stars
9/24/10 Dr.Lao Formulaic and unimaginative, but at least it doesn;t beat you to death with its message 3 stars
8/10/06 Dragon The Artist Below medieocracy, boring,&the alien's appearance was unimaginative. 2 stars
8/16/05 ES A formidable movie, brought down by its cheesy ending= worth a glance 4 stars
5/04/04 John the movie completly sells the reality of the concept - surprisingly entertaining 4 stars
9/15/03 The real Helen Zass No greater pisser than a sub-average theatre release that's a masquerading TV pilot. 1 stars
6/22/03 cochese I wanted V, I got this crap. I was a kid whe I saw it though maybe I'll try again....naaah 2 stars
1/04/03 Jack Sommersby Witty and very entertaining. Caan and Pantikin are wonderful! 4 stars
12/13/02 Charles Tatum Just kind of there 3 stars
10/09/01 Andrew Carden Pretty Good Actually. 4 stars
9/09/01 Butterbean A great movie that should have had a sequal instead of those shitty TV shows 5 stars
2/21/01 Jake I wasted 2 hours on this trash. Caan should be ashamed of himself 2 stars
10/27/98 Silent Rob Interesting social commentary worked into a '48 Hours' retread. 4 stars
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  02-Oct-1988 (R)



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