Do aliens walk the Earth? They had better not. Not least if they look, act and sound the same as Mandy Patinkin. No offence meant to the man that brought life to Criminal Minds, but he is an unsettling, extraordinary experience throughout Alien Nation. Amicable terms are drawn up between Earth and the extra-terrestrials that find refuge on this watery wasteland, and their integration into American culture is detailed here by director Graham Baker. An immediately obvious, heavy-handed allegory, but one that is somewhat rewarding considering the entertainment value on display. That is all an action flick from the late 1980s needs to be. For if it did not have James Caan punching an alien in the head, then Alien Nation would not be worth the film it was printed on.
Plenty of high stakes shootouts make up for the obvious narrative threads. Alien Nation knows how to utilise the cast it has been given with some strong action pieces, but it does not, unfortunately, know how to pace its themes or moments of tension. Caan is thankfully competent in his lead as Detective Sergeant Matthew Sykes, although there is much to be desired when he comes toe to toe with aliens that look rather similar to the leading characters of Coneheads. Sykes is your usual alcoholic burnout, his severed ties with family and less-than-stellar relationship with bondsmen and bill paying a clear issue, he lives in a state of near-squalor. He is aggravated by those he works with, piling on more and more stress as they linger around his fractured state of mind.
What Alien Nation and Baker wish to do with these themes is completely redundant. Whatever it wishes to achieve, however it dances around its issues, is completely futile. Caan and Patinkin have admirable chemistry, but the obvious flaws and direction of the two becoming firm friends by the end of their tumultuous time together is an inevitability Baker can’t wait to arrive at. They eat food together, head out to the clubs, and generally act like a bickering couple. The unhinged, dominant force of Caan crushes the intelligent, slower thought process of Patinkin, and as all duos should, they fight through the hatred and animosity and prove themselves competent partners. It is predictable, but there is safety in that unsurprising relationship.
There is a biting satire buried somewhere in here, not just of attitudes towards immigration but a solid jab at the Ronald Reagan administration. Its heavy-handed approach to the message here is mired by hypocrisy and outdated ideas that, even for the time, were rather unfounded. With a compact ninety minutes, Alien Nation is a fine film. It does not linger on the mind either as much as it should or for as long as Baker would wish it to, but it has some competent action and more than a few moments of worthy merit. A seemingly forgotten piece of the sci-fi puzzle, and it is easy to see where the influences of neon-lit bars and tough as nails cops are found. Alien Nation is all the more accessible because of it.