Alien Nation (1988) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Films are just throwing the word “alien” into their title nowadays in an attempt to get people’s attention.

Alien Nation is another in a series of mainstream attempts to capitalize on the popularity of science-fiction by infusing it within other types of film. It’s an example that studios cannot just add aliens and sci-fi elements to any story and expect it to become a big hit, whether they want it to or not.

First Impressions

The trailer for this film indicates that a group of aliens, called Newcomers, have arrived on Earth with the same sort of ambitions and problems that humans have. A police officer is teamed up with an alien officer to solve a crime that is potentially bad for both groups.The buddy cop genre gets a serious sci-fi version with Alien Nation.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Alien Nation

Alien Nation title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In 1991, three years after an alien ship landed in the Mojave Desert, Los Angeles is one of several communities that now plays host to an influx of Newcomers, alien visitors that were genetically designed for slave labor. They have joined the human society at all levels, from CEOs of companies to owners of convenience stores, from exotic dancers to prostitutes and winos on the streets. Two LAPD detectives, Matt Sykes (James Caan) and his partner Tug (Roger Aaron Brown), investigate a robbery of a Newcomer store (Porter’s) by other Newcomers when Tug is shot by a new kind of bullet that pierces metal like butter.

A few days later Captain Warner (Frank McCarthy) announces a new program from the Mayor, one of the uniformed Newcomers will be promoted to Detective and he is looking for volunteers to partner with them. Sykes recognizes the Newcomer, Sam “George” Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) as one of the officers from the shooting, and volunteers hoping to secretly continue investigating the death of his partner, even though he dislikes the aliens. Sykes (who’s name is a slur in the Newcomer language) and George (which Sykes calls the Newcomer, refusing to call him Sam Francisco) investigate the death of George Hubley, a Newcomer that worked in a local refinery, where he worked in a methane environment.

Investigating Hubley leads the detectives to question Newcomer businessman William Harcourt (Terence Stamp) who is being honored by the Mayor for his contributions to the city. They fail to recognize his assistant Rudyard Kipling (Kevyn Major Howard) as one of the men from the store robbery. They then visit with Porter’s son, Trent (Brian Thompson), who directs them towards Josh Strader (Jeff Kober), who runs a local strip club, Encounters. However, they will not find him as Harcourt and his associates have Strader killed for not accepting his offer.

Alien Nation

Tug and Sykes spot a Newcomer robbery in progress.

At the club, Sykes speaks with Strader’s Newcomer girlfriend Cassandra (Leslie Bevis), who doesn’t have any idea of her boyfriend’s whereabouts and instead decides to come on to Sykes, who she finds attractive. He admits that he’s a bigot and leaves. George had some blood work performed on Hubley, having recognized some signs of drug use. The coroner’s reports are conclusive and he lets Sykes know that they are dealing with a new narcotic on the market, ss’jabroka, which is a potent drug provided to the Newcomers in their time working in the mines.

The detectives return to the plant where Hubley worked and discover a secret ss’jabroka manufacturing facility which George destroys. George goes postal, not caring about procedure, and they return to the strip club in time to bust up a deal between Harcourt and several other men (both humans and Newcomers) to distribute the drug. Harcourt and Kipling escape, stealing a police car in the process, and Sykes and George chase them to a nearby dock. Harcourt overdoses on the drug, which looks (and tastes) like blue dishwashing soap.

When told it’s over, George becomes overly concerned. He knows that an overdose, while apparently making the victim appear dead, is actually part of a metamorphosis for his species. Sykes finds the wrecked ambulance and tracks the escaped Harcourt down, now a mutated, muscular and more aggressive version of himself. He tackles the criminal into the ocean water, which acts like hydrochloric acid to Newcomers. After nearly drowning, Sykes is rescued by George from a helicopter, who injures his hand in the water trying to save his partner. The film ends with the two buddies attending the wedding of Sykes’ daughter, just as Tug should have..

I hope you understand how special your world is, how unique a people you humans are. Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to us that so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves.” – Sam “George” Francisco

Alien Nation

The Newcomer George and Sykes spend much time explaining different things about their species to each other. Here Detective Sykes explains how a prophylactic works.

History in the Making

Alien Nation is the type of movie that comes from a studio meeting where non-creative people try to create something that they think will be hot and topical. Not that there aren’t things about the film that work and are enjoyable, but the film comes off as a better-than-average TV movie. This was not how the film was developed however. It was an original idea presented to the studio by Rockne S. O’Bannon (his first film screenplay after writing for the mid-80s Twilight Zone series, and Spielberg’s Amazing Stories) and produced by Gale Anne Hurd (producer for the two previous James Cameron films, The Terminator and Aliens). It was directed by Graham Baker, an English director whose previous two films were horror thrillers (the third Omen film, The Final Conflict, and Impulse).

The story has many elements that would make it an interesting film. Much like episodes of Star Trek, or the current Trek series, The Next Generation (which debuted in 1987), Alien Nation sought to discuss current social and economic issues through the lens of science-fiction. It also took the ever growing popularity of the buddy-cop film (as seen in 48 Hrs. or Beverly Hills Cop) and placed that within the genre as well. In fact, there is much similarity between Alien Nation’s characters and those from previous sci-fi films from the decade including The Hidden (alien cop teamed with cantankerous Los Angeles cop) and Enemy Mine (bigoted human must work together with distrusted alien). The film uses these characters to explore the themes and issues around racism and immigration, two hot-button topics for Southern California at this time.

Unfortunately, the execution of the plot comes off as a movie of the week style story. The detective work that Sykes and George do in the film is the bare minimum of following up some leads. Much of their work is questioning other characters who tell them to go see someone else. Those interviews quickly lead to other meetings which include the main antagonist, Harcourt, who is so overt in his actions, it’s no wonder he gets discovered. Many of the elements of the plot don’t make sense. For example, Harcourt has worked out a plan for re-creating the ss’jabroka drug with several other Newcomers that were in isolation with him. After Porter created the formula, and Hubley helped with manufacturing (at the refinery), and Strader opens up a distribution network (via the strip club, always a seedy place), Harcourt murders them. He does so because now he has 12 kilograms of the drug. What is his plan after he sells that quantity? He now longer has the connections, and the very public execution murders have put the police onto him. The film also creates characters to help showcase one part of the story but then doesn’t know what to do with them later. A perfect example is Cassandra, the newcomer stripper who is Strader’s girlfriend. She appears to have been created to a) provide the detectives information to continue their search, and b) be sexually provocative to Sykes to again show his bigoted attitudes. After that she serves no purpose, but is placed in the drug buy at the club, and nearly executed in the fight that occurs. Then she is never seen again. Perhaps due to the fact that she’s one of a few female characters with a speaking role, and the only overtly sexy one, the filmmakers felt she needed more screen time.

Alien Nation

The two officers interview a newcomer about the connections between the various killings.


As with a number of other action/sci-fi hybrids from recent years, Alien Nation seems to fall into the trap of using more action elements than sci-fi ones, which can be understandable. Creating a believable futuristic world can be expensive, and since the plan for this film was to create a race of aliens populating the streets of Los Angeles, and the fact that it was only meant to be three years in the future (from the release of the film), the amount of “technological advancement” was limited. The buddy cop aspects were played up, with more emphasis on the police elements, much like The Hidden, except that this time the police detective understands that he’s working with an alien. But as with Trancers, Innerspace, or to a degree, Runaway, the filmmakers are making an effort to play down the sci-fi elements and play up the buddy-action and police procedural aspects.

Aside from the actual aliens and all the discussion of how their biology is different from humans, the only other sci-fi genre element is the quick shots of the Newcomer ship in the prolog to the film. It’s massive, and filmed slightly out of focus (or perhaps its part of the heat shimmer from the desert), and looks like a traditional UFO–saucer shaped. In fact it’s very reminiscent of the ships the Visitors arrived in from V: The Miniseries. No talk of their homeworld, or alien technology or strange weapons. The big bullets (BRI sabot rounds) that they fired on the officers in the opening shoot out are actually real bullets. They may not cause the harm as seen in the film however.

The biggest element that lets audiences understand that this is still a sci-fi story is the aliens. Those weird, bald looking, two hearted creatures, referred to by the derogatory term “slag.” Alien Nation goes to long lengths to create a believable group of aliens while coming up with some strange aspects of these creatures’ anatomy. Some of the things we learn about these aliens is that they have two hearts, the men’s genitalia is not between their legs, but on the sides of their abdomen, they consume raw meats such as beaver, and they can get drunk on sour milk. They also can get high on a substance that doesn’t affect humans, which is probably beneficial as it would cut out on any competition for the drug. But, if they take too much it causes them to mutate into a monsterized version of themselves. Kind of like, hulking out–which seems like a weird trait for genetically engineered aliens that were being given this drug as a reward for their servitude (much like beer given to the slaves that built the pyramids). But would the owners of these slaves really want them hulking out if they overdosed? And then there’s the Newcomers “allergy” to saltwater, which acts like hydrochloric acid to them. Just because their ship landed in the Mojave desert, why did so many choose to settle in Los Angeles? Couldn’t they have chosen Ohio instead?

Alien Nation

Sykes, a self-ascribed bigot, denies Cassandra’s sexual advances.

Societal Commentary

Alien Nation’s biggest thematic ideas are obviously its approach to racism and immigration. After a quick back story of the arrival of the aliens, a newscaster cuts to a speech from “then President” Ronald Reagan (remember, this film is set in 1991), who reminds Americans that it is “a moment for hard decisions” about what to do with the Newcomers. This speech is actually from Reagan’s 1985 Inaugural address in which he’s talking about “reaching a balanced budget” and “reducing the national debt.” It’s interesting that the filmmakers chose to use his words to open the film about immigration. In 1986 Reagan actually helped get the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed which documented about 75% of the undocumented immigrants at the time and created pathways to citizenship and, most importantly, taxability. Choosing to set the film in Los Angeles, which was a city beset with many immigrants both legal and illegal in the 80s, offers a very clear parallel to the real world issues in the nation. It’s probably no surprise that the film name, Alien Nation, is a play on the word “alienation,” which is the state of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong, namely the country in which they live.

The racism and bigotry that go with these immigrant’s is also something that the film chooses to focus on. Sykes refers to the aliens often as “slags,” which is a derogatory term, probably based on their past as miners. Of course, the film also goes out of its way to show that Sykes’ partner is black, so he’s not an “Archie Bunker racist,” but only one that hates the aliens. In fact, he comes out and tells Cassandra that he’s a bigot, so she needs to to not try to seduce him with sexual promiscuity. But Sykes is not the worst offender. He actually chooses to work with George, regardless of what his personal feelings are for the aliens, basically to solve the murder of his partner. There is another member of the force, Fedorchuk (Peter Jason), that is seen in the opening moments, making fun of the Newcomer bartender, and later it is implied that he spray painted anti-Alien graffiti on Sykes’ car. As Sykes learns that these aliens are not so different from humans, in his time with George, Sykes actually smashes Fedorchuk’s face into the steering wheel after another round of slurs are leveled toward George, showing his growth. Eventually, after seeing George risk his life for him, Sykes’ realizes that they can be friends just like he was with Tug, and invites the alien and his family to his daughter’s wedding.

Alien Nation

Sykes tells George a joke. Have you heard the one about the doctor and his thermometer?

The Science in The Fiction

As discussed above, the film goes to great lengths to talk about the differences with the aliens, as compared to humans. They look humanoid, but their xenobiology is much different. Things that would kill humans, don’t seem to bother Newcomers (like methane gas), and vice versa. It is probably due to the fact that these aliens were “genetically-engineered” and “adapted for hard labor in almost any environmental condition.” Not much else is talked about in terms of what else happened to the aliens, or how they were adapted. Obviously they were not adapted for working near salt water, but the breeding of an entire race can raise some interesting questions. Are they close to the way they were before the modifications? And were they bred over time, or is there some sort of technology that changed them all instantaneously? Perhaps the ship the Newcomers arrived in was one of their Slavers’ ships. There could have been some interesting moments that allude to their previous life, more than that they were genetically engineered.

Alien Nation

The alien Newcomer’s are “allergic” to seawater. Here Sykes, and some other detectives, investigate a third homicide.

The Final Frontier

Some of those moments talking about the backstory of the Newcomers might have been addressed in the spinoff television series that followed in 1989-1990, and lasted 22 episodes. New actors were hired to play the leads, but the adventures of Sykes and George continued. After the series was canceled, a series of five made for television films continued the stories between 1994 and 1997. DC Comics had a one issue adaptation of the film, which was followed by a series of comic book mini-series, focused on different characters than the film and TV series, and published by Malibu Comics.

Alien Nation has some good ideas, but they seem to get overshadowed by some other, more ridiculous moments. It was not a complete failure at the box office, and did prove that genre team-ups, much like buddy cop films, were something that could work. Variations of this type of film would arise in the 90s with TV series like The X-Files, which featured humans investigating (possible) aliens, and movies like Men In Black, which takes the comical track and creates a group to police (actual) aliens.

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