A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
“Alien Nation” takes place in 1991, a few years after an alien spaceship wanders off course, lands on Earth and deposits 100,000 extraterrestrials in our midst. These visitors, known as the Newcomers, have been created by genetic engineering to be good slaves; they’re smart, strong and adaptable. But there is no slavery on Earth, so the aliens are slowly absorbed into Southern California society, where some become cops, some become robbers and some operate convenience stores.
There is some prejudice against them, of course, and they look a little odd with their bulbous heads, but they fit in fairly well. The only question is: Are they keeping any secrets? This plot contains the elements of a good idea, but it does so little with it, and is so cheerfully willing to recycle an absolutely standard story, that the idea is finally just frustrating. The movie would have been more fun if it had just gone ahead and admitted it was a Creature Feature. The film has high technical qualities and a prestigious cast, and so during the opening scenes I couldn’t believe it was simply another police action potboiler. I was waiting for subtle hints of deeper meanings, of surprises lurking beneath the surface. But there weren’t any. This is sea-level filmmaking: What you see is all you get.
The movie stars James Caan as a police detective in a situation we’ve seen several dozen times before: His partner is killed in a shoot-out with Newcomer stickup men, and the chief wants him to accept a new partner - a Newcomer, of course. At first Caan is reluctant. But then he figures the Newcomer can give him entry into his people’s underworld, so that he can revenge the death of his partner.
This story has been recycled so often, we can recite the dialogue right along with the characters, but we’re thinking, maybe the aliens will provide a new angle. The filmmakers couldn’t think of one, alas, but I’m happy to offer several: (a) The Newcomers have a secret agenda they’re concealing from humans; (b) this is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” all over again, except that the pod people are operating in plain sight this time; (c) the race that bred the Newcomers to be slaves sends its warships to recapture them, and humans and Newcomers fight side-by-side to repel them; (d) this is a political satire on the role of minority groups in Los Angeles.