I remember catching a matinee showing of yet another ‘buddy-cop’ movie in the fall of 1988 called “Alien Nation.” The movie followed the same general template as “48 HRS,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Red Heat”, and a few dozen others, including the “Rush Hour” movies which came about a decade later. However, “Alien Nation” had a science fiction twist…one of the cops was from another planet.
Originally titled “Outer Heat,” “Alien Nation” was written by Rockne S. O’Bannon, who would go on to do the TV series “Farscape” and other successful science fiction projects. The film was produced by the wildly successful hit-maker Gale Ann Hurd (“The Terminator”, “ALIENS”, “The Abyss,” “The Walking Dead”), and directed in a somewhat workmanlike manner by Graham Baker. Rumors of an uncredited rewrite by James Cameron could not be credibly verified.
**** ALIEN NATION SPOILERS ****
The movie takes place in that long-ago future of 1991 (a mere three years after the film’s release), where former alien slaves known as “Newcomers” (derisively referred to as ‘slags’) arrive in the Mojave desert and are immediately assimilated into the melting pot of Los Angeles.
These Newcomers are highly adaptable, both physically and mentally, but they have some unusual physiological differences. They’re generally humanoid, but with hairless, spotted heads and thick, sturdy physiques. Being bred as a slave labor class, they have high tolerances to toxic fumes such as pure methane, though they also have unusual weaknesses…hitting them under their arms renders them unconscious, and sea water burns them like battery acid.
Following the murder of his partner Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown) by a ‘slag’ assassin, bigoted detective Matt Sykes (James Caan) volunteers to work with newly promoted Newcomer detective Samuel Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), whom Sykes immediately renames “George,” in order to find the killer and avenge his partner’s murder.
During the course of the investigation, there are all of the usual buddy cop movie tropes; the shooting range scene (“Lethal Weapon”), the roughing-up of suspects in a sleazy bar scene (see: “48 HRS,” “Red Heat,” “Rush Hour”), the played-for-laughs language barrier scenes (“Red Heat,” “Rush Hour”), the obligatory strip club scene (“48 HRS,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Red Heat”), and, of course, the smooth Brit-accented bad guy, “William Harcourt”, played by Terence Stamp (doing an almost note-for-note riff on Steven Berkoff’s slick, drug-dealing art dealer from “Beverly Hills Cop”).
The trail of the murder leads Sykes & Francisco to Harcourt, who is (surprise surprise) a slick drug dealer (just like Berkoff); peddling a recreated Newcomer PCP-like substance called “jabroka”, which is harmless to humans (to whom it “tastes like detergent”). The drug was previously used to control Newcomers (back when they were slaves) by offering a powerful, adrenal-fueled high as a ‘reward’; causing many Newcomers to literally work themselves to death for it. Overdoses of the drug can also cause Newcomers to mutate into grotesquely monstrous, powerful versions of themselves which we later see in the final confrontation with Harcourt.
There’s a prolonged car chase at the end, an obligatory over-the-top death of the evil Harcourt, a heroic rescue in a helicopter over the ocean where George has to overcome his (understandable) fear of saltwater, and of course, that moment where the former bigot has seemingly overcome his prejudice (like Nick Nolte with Eddie Murphy in “48 HRS”). The last scene of the film sees both cops in formal wear (and matching slings for their arms) attending the wedding of Sykes’ daughter Kristen (Angela O’Neill).
The end credits roll over a generic, ’80s-sounding pop song about brotherhood, partnership, etc. called “Indestructible”, recorded (surprisingly) by the very talented The Four Tops (who’ve done classic work, including “Baby, I Need Your Loving”).
“Alien Nation”‘s numerous continuity issues in the final half hour (disappearing/reappearing guns, articles of clothing, etc.) hint at a troubled production that was arguably pulled out of (or put into?) the fire in editing. A little research confirms that the movie was indeed heavily reedited.
Even the trailer and lobby cards hint at moments not seen in the final film.
The movie also scrapped a finished Jerry Goldsmith score (which was eventually released on the Varese Sarabande record label, which specializes in rare soundtracks). The late Goldsmith’s work was replaced in favor of a more traditional-sounding action/cop movie score by Curt Sobel. That’s a bit like trading in one’s Mercedes for a scooter. Nothing against Sobel, who’s done fine work since (including “The Revenant”), but Goldsmith was a legend. Reportedly, Goldsmith’s score didn’t fit the final, rejiggered cut of the movie due to its reshoots and heavy reediting during a troubled post-production.
Frustratingly generic as the movie is, there is the seed of something greater within the framework of its story. The idea of using literal aliens as metaphors for all of the various threads of humanity that populate the real Los Angeles is intriguing, as is the notion of losing one’s cultural identity in order to ‘blend.’ Other than a few snide comments and racial epithets, the movie doesn’t fully explore the (perhaps understandable) resentments that might occur if a race of superior, genetically-engineered competitors were dropped on humanity’s doorstep.
Midway in the movie, we also catch a brief glimpse of George’s domestic life as he leaves for work. The idea of a family of former slaves assimilating on a strange new planet just begged for future exploration. “Alien Nation” had an intriguing premise, but ultimately it felt squandered in favor of making a traditional buddy cop movie. A real shame.
Fortunately, the seeds of Alien Nation’s greater potential did reach fertile soil a year later…
Alien Nation: The TV Series (1989-1990).
While “Alien Nation” movie was somewhat unspectacular, a year later it spawned a superior, though sadly short-lived TV series and a string of TV movies produced by the talented and prolific Kenneth Johnson (“The Bionic Woman, “The Incredible Hulk,” “V: The Miniseries”). Johnson had a large hand in the development of the series, as well as writer Diane Frolov, who would later go on to produce both “Northern Exposure” as well as “The Sopranos.”
The two lead characters were recast; the role of Matt Sykes would be played by a longer-haired, younger Gary Graham, and George would be played by Eric Pierpoint. We also get to meet the entire Francisco family; wife Susan (Michelle Scarabelli), rebellious son Buck (Sean Six) and daughter Emily (Lauren Woodland). Another interesting character is Uncle Moodri (James Green), who is unapologetically proud of his Tenctonese heritage, and tries to remind his family of it as well. He is especially close to the rebellious Buck, whom he feels much empathy with.
We also meet Matt’s own newly rewritten rebellious daughter, now named Kirby (played by Cheryl Pollak, a former high school classmate of mine, in fact) and his attractive Newcomer police forensics colleague and neighbor, Kathy (Terri Treas). Kathy, along with George’s family, serve to help open Matt’s somewhat closed mind regarding Newcomers.
The series had a freer hand to develop many of the ideas that were barely hinted at in the feature film. We also learn many intimate details of Newcomer reproduction, such as ‘humming’ (a means of foreplay) as well as the true partnership of Newcomer pregnancy; Tenctonese females carry the fetus from conception, but transfer their ‘pod’ to the male, who actually carries the baby to term. In its brief year on TV, the series established a fascinating culture for the Tenctonese; including music, food, language, weaknesses, clothing, and mythology.
Personal favorite episodes of mine include “Little Lost Lamb,” “Night of Screams,” “Chains of Love,” “Contact,” “Three to Tango,” “Rebirth,” “Real Men,” “The Touch” and “Green Eyes.”
Sadly, the final episode of the canceled first season (“Green Eyes”) ended with a cliffhanger, as George’s entire family is poisoned by an anti-Newcomer hate group.
However, despite the poison and the cancelation, this wasn’t quite the end for Matt Sykes and the Franciscos…
Alien Nation: The TV movies (1994-1996).
Popular support for the canceled series proved enough to warrant no less than five subsequent TV movie sequels (in reality, more like a protracted second season). Each 90-minute movie (without commercials) was roughly the running time of a pair of hour-long episodes, so when viewed as a collective, it’s like getting 10 new episodes of the series over three years.
“Dark Horizon” (1994). The first TV movie resolves the 1990 cliffhanger somewhat perfunctorily, but also follows up on the TV series episode “Contact”, with a returning Tenctonese Overseer ship seeking its lost cargo of slaves (the Newcomers of Earth).
“Body and Soul” (1995). This second movie deals with two unusual Tenctonese, a freakishly strong giant and a small child, who are seemingly connected somehow.
“Millennium” (1996). As the 20th century draws to a close, Buck falls under the sway of a deadly Tenctonese cult. The movie was eerily uncanny, coming out a full year before the “Heaven’s Gate” cult tragedy of 1997.
“The Enemy Within” (1996). George has to face his own prejudices when he investigates the death of a member of a Tenctonese underclass that feeds on waste. An intriguing look at caste systems, from the perspective of a society of former slaves.
“The Udara Legacy” (1996). The final TV movie deals with seemingly benign, everyday Newcomers committing violent acts of terror against former Overseers. George has fears that Susan herself might be involved.
Meeting the ‘Overseers.’
Over the years at various conventions I’ve attended, I’ve had the opportunities to meet two of the cast members, Gary Graham and Michelle Scarabelli, as well as series creator and TV producing legend, Kenneth Johnson.
I remember having the chance to talk with Johnson for a few minutes, and he was a genuinely nice and open man; he will talk to any fan at length. I’ve even communicated with him by email a few times (and yes, he does respond quickly; he’s very sincere).
I’m also a fan of Johnson’s original “V” miniseries of 1983. Johnson wasn’t directly involved with its 1984 sequel or the two “V” TV series (1985 and 2009), beyond a consultant credit. Johnson was also a producer/writer on “The Bionic Woman” as well as the 1977-82 TV series of “The Incredible Hulk.” Prolific doesn’t begin to describe his amazing career.
Ten years ago, I read his novel form sequel to the original “V”, “V: The Second Generation” (2008), which eschewed all continuity with the subsequent sequels, and it was quite a page turner. He continues to write, in fact; most recently “Man of Legends” (2017) and one that I’ve just bought the audiobook of, “The Darwin Variant” (2018). I look forward to listening to “The Darwin Variant” very soon!
Rumors swirled in 2016 of an Alien Nation reboot/remake (from writer/director Jeff Nichols), but thus far, nothing’s come of it.
“Alien Nation”, like “All in the Family” or “MASH” (another TV series that improved upon its previous feature film), still holds up. Its provocative themes of racism, intolerance, cultural assimilation, rediscovering heritage, religion and exploration of new sexualities are all still very relevant today.
I wonder what an “Alien Nation” series (or movie) would look like in the current age of increasing intolerance and open hostility towards immigrants in Trump’s America? A new “Alien Nation” could once again be a lens through which we see and analyze our own world, as the best works of science fiction often do.
Whether a continuing sequel or a full reboot, any future “Alien Nation” offering, particularly if done with the care and thoughtfulness of the Kenneth Johnson series, would definitely have my attention.
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RIP James Caan, 1940-2022