If we already don’t get along with each other as humans, just imagine if we had to coexist with an alien race, as happens in this 1988 sci-fi movie, Alien Nation.
The story begins in the heart of California, Los Angeles, where everyday reality hangs in the balance between humans and newcomers, aliens who have come to our planet as refugees.
Experienced police officer Matthew Sykes can’t stand the alien race, so when he is assigned a fellow newcomer, George Francisco, he is anything but happy about the news.
This being from the stars has a very different character, and the partnership quickly becomes hostile because Matthew is an aggressive cop who always does things his own way, while George is extremely serious and dutiful about following the rules.
Moreover, George replaces one of his friends being shot in the line by some Newcomers criminals, and their commander forbids them to investigate the murder.
However, of course, Matthew doesn’t give a damn about the orders and convinces his colleague to take him inside the fascinating culture of aliens to find some clues or witnesses.
Many newcomers live confined to rundown urban areas, suffering discrimination and abuse from both humans and their own kind, so they don’t immediately find someone willing to talk.
Very soon, though, the two cops learn that behind the murder is a new drug with a frightening effect on the aliens, making them much stronger and more aggressive.
This substance ran on their spaceship long before they arrived on Earth, helping them endure the long space journey’s grueling work and harsh conditions.
Now someone wants to exploit this potent drug to make the last rebellious aliens docile and obedient, leading to a plot involving the most prominent newcomer personalities in international human politics.
Drugs and Racism in Dystopian 1980s
Undoubtedly, Alien Nation was in the vein of the buddy movies viral in 1988. Yet, including extraterrestrial elements, far from being a mere sci-fi pretext, adds a touch of fascinating complexity.
The thoughtful approach to the alien theme enriches the plot, offering a simple but powerful metaphor for racism and oppression of the disadvantaged classes.
A movie that has more than one point in common with Neill Blomkamp‘s celebrated District 9, which nevertheless went even further, emphasizing more of the director’s action and visual imagination.
Both films share the ability to amalgamate fanciful ingredients with social themes within everyone’s reach. Still, director Graham Baker does not settle for a simple good cop/bad cop dynamic between the leads.
On the contrary, he elevates them to a higher level, as if these two characters are a sample of both species, when they realize their mutual dislike lies in the fact that, actually, they are much more similar than they want to admit.
This leads them to understand that instead of stoking resentment, they should join forces and fight against the real enemy, the oppressors, and exploiters of the weaker classes among humans and aliens.
It is a small but crucial lesson all promoters of hatred and discrimination should internalize, even if it comes from a sci-fi film that aims primarily at entertainment, but it can provide profound lessons and stimulate audiences to ponder social reality.
Clearly, Baker was under budget constraints and lack of sophisticated modern CGI. Still, he puts all these topics within a conventional crime flick focusing on drug trafficking.
Then again, the alien drug becomes a powerful tool to convey a current message since it enslaves and economically exploits drug addicts. Reminiscent of anything from our present-day world?
What about these aliens from the 80s?
Standing out unequivocally in the cast are the two main protagonists embodied in the so-called buddy cops.
With his vibrant and energetic demeanor, Mandy Patinkin immediately comes to attention.
Beloved ever since his fearless role as a swordsman in The Princess Bride, he plays here a more reserved character, a stiff and thoughtful alien.
Nevertheless, as the plot progresses and with the revelation of his troubled past, facets of deep suffering and resilience emerge.
At the helm of the investigation, we find the unstoppable James Caan, a classic figure with a rugged and manly temperament.
His impetuous cop character is essentially a stereotype, yet Caan enriches it with his unmistakable charisma, imbuing his performance with undeniable vigor and fun.
It’s no coincidence the actor confirms a period of exceptional artistic brilliance, with a filmography that ranges from such memorable pieces as Rollerball, Thief, and Misery.
A career full of different roles, where every challenge seems to be in his sights, and for us viewers, his presence, whether in cinema or television, is a reassuring constant. This familiar shape has remained in the hearts of audiences since the distant days of The Godfather.
The meeting, clash, and eventual friendship between these two characters is the highlight of the story, but as we well know, every adventure also requires the presence of a memorable antagonist, and Terence Stamp rises admirably to the task.
In a way, this figure evokes the fearsome General Zod he played in Superman II, yet with an additional degree of complexity, since instead of being spectacularly explosive, he hides behind human political machinations, making him even more insidious.
Alien Nation did reasonably well at the box office in 1988, not becoming an Oscar-winning movie but with an excellent overall response among audiences and critics.