The year is 1991 and something has drastically changed in American society: the aliens have not only visited, they have settled and decided to stay. It has taken three years and a lot of civil rights legislation, but finally the Newcomers are mixing with humanity, though there remains resistance to their presence among many in the local communities, no matter that these aliens, who have escaped slavery on their own world, have done their best to fit in with these new surroundings. Well, perhaps not all, as bigoted cop Matthew Sykes (James Caan]) notices when he is out on patrol with his partner and they catch sight of a couple of these invaders holding up a convenience store, and go to intervene, not knowing it will be a fateful decision...
You guessed it, because Sykes' original partner was black, by the rules of nineteen-eighties cinema if he was not Eddie Murphy then his days were numbered, his minutes were numbered in fact, as he is blown away by a super-powerful gun the robbers are using and Sykes makes it his mission to find out what was going on - there could be a conspiracy afoot, especially on the evidence of what happens next with the main miscreant taking a drug which gives him incredible strength and all the bullets and more that our hero has to take him down. Alien Nation was set to be a major blockbuster at a point when the sci-fi action movie had truly taken off, yet thanks to production difficulties it was rewritten and re-edited extensively.
It was enough of a modest success to spawn a television series the year after, but that was basically what this was, a routine cop show with the novelty that the two mismatched buddies were human and alien. Originally, it had been devised by Rockne S. O'Bannon, the man who created cult favourite science fiction adventure show Farscape, but this was far less ambitious, at least after many got their hands on his script and refashioned it into this aggressively mediocre variant on what by 1988 had become an extremely well-worn narrative, and it was not as if Hollywood (or anywhere else, really) was finished with the cop yarn by any means. What made it more interesting, potentially, was that James Cameron had reportedly taken a run at it too.
Not that Alien Nation was in any way the equal of his big hits, it was barely the equal of The Abyss, as the results played strictly as safely as possible with what could have been a provocative metaphor for the immigrant situation in the United States. Part of the problem was that Newcomers were not alien enough to be convincing as anything but a hacky notion of how immigrants would be treated if they hailed from another world with their unconvincing quirks such as getting drunk on sour milk, but they were not believable as representations of what you assume O'Bannon was trying to convey in the first place, since too often the material lapsed comfortably into cliché. Take Terence Stamp as the alien community leader: he turns out to be corrupt as we see him dissolving a fellow Newcomer in sea water, so obviously the grand finale has him making his escape by boat.
All for the slasher flick conventions to kick in, naturally. The issue of PCP, a headline-ready drug at the time that was making its addicts behave extremely recklessly, to say the least, was applied to the aliens' narcotic of choice, but the way the film set about this message making was about as resonant as a Nancy Reagan lecture to the country. Not to mention some of the most egregious product placement in a decade when that practice went into overdrive: a certain soft drinks manufacturer has an alien-adorned billboard shown, a bereaved wife is comforted in the glow of one of their refrigerated machines, and they even placed a rival's logo prominently at a fast food joint that sells raw beaver to the aliens, to make the connection in the audience's mind that the competition was about as tasty as that. Maybe it's because Alien Nation squandered a very fine premise that its ordinary results smart so badly, as its comparisons were clumsy, its acting uninspired and overfamiliar, and the action utterly unsurprising. You do wonder what it was like originally. Music by Curt Sobel.