Monday, November 3, 2008

Narrow Horizons

Yeah, I know, I’ve been going to the New Beverly a lot lately. I really have been seeing movies elsewhere, but my trips to that particular theater are what I’ve been writing about. But really, does anyone actually want to read about new movies here? You want me to write about ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO? And I didn’t get a ticket to see Soderbergh’s CHE at the Chinese, so writing something about that was of course out. What can I say? I liked CHANGELING, though. But I’d rather write about other things. None of this means that there was ever going to be a large crowd turning up the other night at the New Beverly for the midnight show of ALIEN NATION. I mean, ALIEN NATION? Really? I’m not even sure why I went. During the introduction it was revealed that Twentieth-Century Fox had never before rented out this title for a revival screening. Again, not a real surprise. I saw the thing opening night in October 1988, just over twenty years ago, and though I don’t think I was using words like “underwhelmed” to describe movies I went to when I was a teenager, that’s probably what I was thinking. In that sense, things haven’t changed.

The film is set in what was then the future, 1991 to be specific. The start of the film comes three years after an alien race landed and since assimilated into society, primarily Los Angeles. Those people, called Newcomers (or “slags” which is the more racist term), have encountered a fair amount of discrimination along the way. Police Detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan), a definite hater of the Newcomers, is on patrol one night with his partner when they stumble on a robbery gone bad, resulting in a few Newcomers killing the owner of a liquor store (also one of theirs) as well as Sykes’s partner. Badly wanting to track down who did this, Sykes reluctantly decides to team up with Newcomer Samuel Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), the first of the race to achieve Detective status in the LAPD. Their investigation leads them to wealthy Newcomer William Harcourt (Terence Stamp) and though the two men begin to trust each other, Sykes still has to try to figure out the secrets about the race that even Francisco won’t readily divulge.

There’s a good idea in there, one that could explore racism and hatred within a genre concept but nearly nothing interesting is ever really done with this. You could really say that ALIEN NATION is a spectacularly blah film and leave it at that. Written by Rockne S. O’Bannon, it feels like an attempt by its producers to do a science fiction take on LETHAL WEAPON, but that film had Richard Donner and Joel Silver who knew how to give their film the appropriate pizzazz. ALIEN NATION, directed by Graham Baker (THE FINAL CONFLICT), feels a little decidedly lifeless for much of its running time with scene after scene feeling like it has no shape or rhythm. This even extends to the subdued score by Curt Sobel, so sparse that at times I felt like I was watching a rough edit of a movie before the music got added. The original composer was Jerry Goldsmith (his name is in the credits of the trailer) who had his work tossed but the abruptness of the plotting at some points in the second half makes me wonder if there had been multiple problems during post-production and, looking for a Band-Aid, Goldsmith’s score was the sacrificial lamb. What does turn up, courtesy of Jane’s Addiction, is just about the worst cover of “Sympathy for the Devil” imaginable. Since the final film is only 94 minutes at least it ends fairly quickly, but, complete with lackluster action and dully staged confrontations, it barely feels like it’s contained a complete story and the implications of some of the revelations, like the potential of the physical strength and mental acuity of the Newcomers, feel underdeveloped (Apparently the later TV show did considerably more with these concepts, but I've never seen it). It feels like more emphasis is given to the large gun that James Caan is given early on that can seemingly blow anything to smithereens, something that feels like it’s wandered in from another movie. Even Joel Silver always seemed to know how to correctly integrate those kinds of things. The final moment of the film contains a brief bit of narration from Caan’s character which, since there has been no such voiceover heard before, feels like a desperate attempt to include some closure where there wouldn’t be any otherwise. The cinematography by Adam Greenberg, in the years between shooting the first two TERMINATOR films, feels funky too. Though shot in Scope, the framing often feels overly tight and the film is shot at such low light levels that numerous times I wondered if the production had trouble getting the lens they were using to correctly focus. At least the alien makeup, from the Stan Winston studios, is effective and probably the most unique thing about the movie.

While watching it the other night I found myself studying James Caan and what he was doing in each scene. The ultimate conclusion I came to was that the actor probably knew he was in a piece of shit and, receiving no help from his director, was valiantly trying to do anything he could to make the scenes interesting. He and Mandy Patinkin do work very well together and I constantly had the impression that whole chunks of dialogue were made up on the spot by the two of them. It’s not enough to save the film, but at least it’s something. As it turns out, soon after the film’s release Caan was quoted in People magazine as saying that there were “a lot of things in (the movie) I wasn’t too crazy about” adding that director Baker couldn’t “direct traffic”. When asked why he took the role Caan replied. “Mostly, I was broke and I needed to work”. Maybe the state of his career in the late eighties made him not only want to work but also prove his professionalism which would explain why, even if he knew it wasn’t going to work, he seems to have decided not to just walk through the movie like other actors may have. At the very least, having an actor like Caan in this film provides it with an energy and legitimacy it wouldn't otherwise have had. He has a few scenes with familiar character actor Peter Jason, playing a prick police detective, and it occurred to me at one point that both men had worked with Howard Hawks. I wonder if they talked about that between takes. Patinkin is at times very funny, particularly in how he underplays certain lines but Terence Stamp, whose character is revealed to be the bad guy about twenty seconds after we seen him being honored, doesn’t get to do much beyond use his voice to seem as intimidating as possible.

Since the there wasn’t a particularly large crowd for the film, I suppose this means that ALIEN NATION is one of the few science fiction films from the eighties that actually doesn’t have a rabid cult following. This is probably because ultimately it’s a pretty forgettable movie, not even bad enough to be notable in any way. At least if I think of this film in another few years, maybe seeing it things time will remind me why I can’t remember very much of it. I certainly wasn’t upset about going to the New Beverly to see it. Maybe the next one I see there will be better. Maybe soon things will begin to get better anyway.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of Fox titles out there that have never been requested for a revival screening, Bob Rafelson's BLACK WIDOW can be added to the list. The theater I work at was informed of this when the request was made. Fox had no idea what kind of shape the film was in, having been on the shelf for 21 years, and were going to take a look at it until we had to regretably cancel the booking for a more lucrative affair.

Anonymous said...

Alien Nation is one of those science fiction movies that opens with so many possibilities, then disappoints at every interval.

James Cameron must be happy he didn't get any credit for polishing the script. What's striking is I can't recall anything about the movie that seems like Cameron would have conjured it. Maybe the armored piercing gun.

What if an alien spacecraft landed and something cool actually happened? This movie is woefully equipped to explore that, although, you are correct Peel in that the TV series was pretty good. Everything from the sensibility to the characters to the alien makeup was a vast improvement.

Unknown said...

"There’s a good idea in there, one that could explore racism and hatred within a genre concept but nearly nothing interesting is ever really done with this."

I think you nailed the problem with ALIEN NATION right there.

I remember seeing this opening weekend and coming away from it feeling the same way you did. There are some interesting ideas and a couple of effective scenes. I like the bit where Caan's character chases a suspect into a darkened tunnel and at first all you hear is the sound of something and then footsteps. Caan really sells the tension in that moment.

But other than that, what a waste of an intriguing idea.

Wonderful write-up - I really enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this since my tweenage years, but remember it as being super-boring.

Upon seeing this calendar, a friend of mine said, "Why would they decide to show the only sci-fi movie that DOESN'T have a following?"

Host said...


Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks to you all for the comments.

Captain Terrific--

I actually saw BLACK WIDOW in the theater way back then too. Unless somebody does a Raefelson retrospective I can't imagine there'd be much demand for a print. I have no idea how well that movie would hold up, but I bet it's more interesting than ALIEN NATION.

Joe Valdez--

So Cameron really worked on this? I bet you're right about the gun, though for all we know he may have plugged up a lot of holes in the script...or maybe a few more popped up after he worked on it. It really is a disappointment.


Yeah, it's a waste and the TV show aside, maybe somebody could actually try remaking it with some actual social commentary. Caan does some really good work, but of course it's not enough. Glad you liked the piece!


Maybe the New Beverly wanted to find the only sci-fi movie without a following as a kind of experiment, to see who would actually show up. I guess I fell for their little plan. Watch out, maybe next we'll get CYBORG with Van Damme.