District 9 received a lot of praise for the originality and social relevance of its premise. A few people noted, however, that the film Alien Nation had already used the concept of a small number of enslaved alien refugees facing racism from humans. I complained a bit that District 9 didn’t actually live up to its humanist metaphor because of action and horror tropes. Alien Nation, unfortunately, fares even worse, as the premise is largely ignored in favor of presenting an ‘80s buddy cop movie.
Buddy cop films seemed to dominate the 1980s. They’re extremely formulaic. You start with too miss-matched guys who are partnered up: tough guy/smart guy, about-to-retire guy/suicidal young guy, black cop/white cop, American cop/Asian cop, human cop/dog cop, Whoopi Goldberg cop/dinosaur cop, etc. Then, you put them against powerful gangsters who are about to introduce a new superdrug to the streets. Their boss yells at them for their unorthodox methods, and they get taken off the case, but they solve it anyway in a bloody action sequence. Sometimes it’s really dumb; sometimes it’s quite fun. Alien Nation, despite the unusual set-up, follows the formula so closely that you can forget you’re watching a science fiction film at times.
Matthew Sykes (James Caan) loses his best friend to a criminal Newcomer, one of the alien refugees that have recently settled among the general human population. He wants to find the killer Newcomer and decides that he should take on another Newcomer, recently promoted to detective due to alien affirmative action, as his partner to get on the case. At first he hates his new partner, Sam Francisco (Mandy Patankin, at the height of his career), but they grow closer as the case goes on. They discover, of course, that a whole series of Newcomer slaying are related to…wait for it….a powerful new superdrug that they must stop!
It’s a perfectly fun film, and Caan and Patankin are great actors who build some pretty decent chemistry. It seems a shame to waste such a good concept though. The film never delves into the social issues sitting just beneath the surface. I was hoping for In the Heat of the Night with aliens, but instead I got Lethal Weapon with aliens. And I'm getting too old for that shit.