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MOVIE REVIEWS : Allegory Fails to Freshen ‘Alien Nation’

Times Staff Writer

“Alien Nation” (citywide) lays on allegory to freshen up the formula cop-buddy picture. But it lays it on so thinly that it only emphasizes the routineness. Graham Baker’s direction has some style and James Caan and Mandy Patinkin have warmth but not enough to stave off the blahs. Written by Rockne S. O’Bannon, “Alien Nation” is no “Planet of the Apes.”

It’s the near future, and Los Angeles is trying to absorb a population of 300,000 humanoids who landed in the Mojave Desert when their spaceship (which must have been immense) malfunctioned. Since they’ve been genetically engineered to perform hard labor, they’re ideally prepared to take on the back-breaking, lowest-paying jobs. But civil liberties lawyers have fought successfully for the integration of the humanoids, politely called Newcomers but often referred to disparagingly as Slags. The dough-faced Newcomers have no hair and mottled scalps. Their ears are recessed, and apparently they have two hearts. The men are homely but some of the women resemble exotic high-fashion models. Their language sounds like a mix of Russian and one of the click-sound African tongues.

Unfortunately, the Newcomers’ arrival and initial experiences--the real story--are behind us when the film opens. Caan’s Matt Sykes, the typically weary, seasoned cop has just lost his partner in a shoot-out with Newcomers.

Looking for Newcomer savvy, he deliberately teams up with the first alien to make detective, Patinkin’s Sam Francisco, whom Caan insists on calling George. Sykes is an Archie Bunker bigot about Newcomers, but it’s clear from his first meeting with Francisco that Matt’s a good guy . . . at hearts. Once he gets to know George, who seems modeled after Sidney Poitier’s smart, arrow-straight Virgil Tibbs, you know they’ll be pals. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about this film, including its play-on-words title.

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In their investigation of several seemingly unconnected murders of Newcomers, they tangle with the Newcomers’ most prominent businessman (Terence Stamp, in his usual stentorian-voiced villain turn), who has set in motion a singularly evil and lucrative criminal operation.

By now it should be obvious that the Newcomers are convenient stand-ins for any minority--blacks, Latinos, Vietnamese--to make points about the folly and immorality of racism. But because “Alien Nation” is essentially empty exploitation, longer on mayhem than reflection, it’s disturbing to consider that an unthinking audience could be given the impression that members of such minorities are somehow inhuman.

Caan brings more to the film than it gives to him, but it’s perverse that Patinkin, one of the most expressive of actors, is hidden behind so much makeup. Even so, he brings a certain wistfulness to the formal and starchy George. There are, thankfully, a few humorous and imaginative touches here and there, but “Alien Nation” (rated R for standard exploitation movie violence and language) is hardly inspired. However, it certainly is handsome: cinematographer Adam Greenberg, who gave such a great look to “The Terminator” and “La Bamba,” has done it again, creating a vast and largely night-time Los Angeles filled with darkness and danger.


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