Way back in the Year of Our Lord 1988, an awesome little gem of a science fiction movie that also managed to be an action movie and a police thriller was released. That little movie is Alien Nation.
The film is a tight, fast-paced detective thriller but it has the cool twist of being set in a version of 1991 where aliens live among us. A few years prior to the start of the film, a spaceship landed that was full of an alien race that had been bred as slaves. The world takes them in and treats them more or less the same as fellow humans. Of course, there is a theme of them being a class of minorities. There are prejudices, and these form part of the story.
Alien Nation starts with James Caan and his partner getting into a shootout with two of the aliens who are robbing a store.
His partner is killed, and Caan barely survives. The first alien on the police force is promoted to detective and Caan volunteers to be his new partner, purely in an attempt to find the guys who killed his former partner.
Together they uncover a scheme by a prominent member of the alien business community to make and sell the drug that was used by the slave owners to keep the aliens under control.
The movie has all the usual 80s buddy cop tropes. Caan initially hates his new partner, but is using him to get revenge for his slain friend. They warm up to each other over the course of the movie, eventually learning to respect each other and become friends.
The other cops are bigots towards the aliens, and there is a standard competing detective duo that act like real assholes. It’s all there, and it is done really well, hitting all the beats you expect from a buddy cop thriller. Just like a successful slasher movie, it knows exactly what it is and it gives you everything you want from the genre.
The difference here is the science fiction angle and that’s what makes it special. It is handled so well that you buy into the concept 100%. The whole thing feels natural, right down to the alien culture and language. You see the alien writing on signs, in places of business, all around Los Angeles and it feels organic and natural, no different to seeing Korean or Spanish language signs in the real world.
The whole background on the aliens is so well integrated that you wonder if current Hollywood could ever pull it off today. The world of Alien Nation is so fully realized that it builds impressively deep lore in a tight, compact 91-minute run time. The amount accomplished without a huge three-hour run time, and on a non-extravagant budget, is amazing in retrospect when viewing the movie today.
James Caan and Mandy Patinkin play the two detectives, Caan being the human and Patinkin the alien. Neither of them is phoning it in. They sell the concept completely. Their odd-couple relationship is endlessly enjoyable to watch as they learn about each other, their differences and their friendship develops. There are some truly hilarious moments from these circumstances that are as much fun as the action.
Alien Nation got a mixed reception from critics at the time. Maybe it was simply ahead of its time? I watch it a couple of times a year. It did go on to spawn a short-lived TV series and some TV movies. Someone out there other than me must have liked it.
If you haven’t seen this one yet, grab a copy and settle down to watch. You are in for a real treat.