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'Alien Nation'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 07, 1988


Graham Baker
James Caan;
Mandy Patinkin;
Terence Stamp
profanity and alien nudity

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E.T. meets LAPD in "Alien Nation," an outer-space, salt-and-pepper, buddy cop action thriller as metaphor. James Caan and Mandy Patinkin costar as the archetypal squad car odd couple -- street-smart versus by-the-book detective -- but there's a twist. One is a buddy from another planet.

It's 1991, three years after 300,000 genetically engineered humanoids with heads like giant liver-spotted leeks landed in California. Though they have assimilated quickly -- already featured in Pepsi ads -- they are the new boat people. The "newcomers" ("slags" behind their backs) are stronger and smarter than earthlings, who naturally fear for their jobs and their daughters.

"Alien Nation" wants to be "In the Heat of the Night" as science fiction, but it's neither morally instructive nor prophetic. It proves a lumbering marriage of action and sci-fi that alienates both audiences. It's too dull for one and too dumb for the other. But worst of all, it violates its own principles when its only black character, Caan's first partner, is blown away in a Slag Town shootout. If they really meant business, the moviemakers would have chosen pepper over salt.

The movie begins promisingly with an entertaining prowl car ride through Slag Town, where resident winos get loaded on sour milk and addicts on jabulka (earth spelling). Fast-food restaurants can't keep up with the demand for raw beaver burgers with fixins. ("Wipe your lips, you can't go out with fur in your teeth," one fast-fed alien says to the other.) The tour ends when Caan, as Sykes, and his partner Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown) spot a 211 in progress. The smaller earthlings are easily overwhelmed by the huge, two-hearted, armed and deadly aliens. Tuggle is mowed down and Sykes, swearing to avenge his death, volunteers to ride with the force's first alien detective.

Patinkin, as George, is a gentle family man, recalling Ozzie Nelson if he were a fungus. The conservative, sweet-natured newcomer brings an air freshener for their unmarked car. A la "Lethal Weapon" and "Stakeout," to name but a few, Sykes (which means caca head in Slag speak) is a sloppy, lonely guy with nothing but an answering machine for company. His current dilemma -- whether to go to his daughter's wedding, as his ex-wife will be there. One night George and Sykes get drunk together on sour milk and tequila and get to know each other better. Bonding begins.

Following the "How to Buddy Movie Handbook," debuting screenwriter Rockne S. O'Bannon writes by rote. His story is so predictable you can see the audience's lips move. The two detectives conduct a murder investigation that leads to a drug ring -- routine except for the aliens. Their bond intensifies under fire till they achieve Buddy, it's you-hood. Bonus: George overcomes his fear of saltwater and Sykes becomes nicer.

But there's little to savor except the actors' rapport and what passes for repartee. The partners find a condom in a murder victim's personal effects and Sykes tries to explain how it works. "It stretches and yet it still fits," says the alien in amazement. On the cuter side, George shows Sykes a picture of his kid. "We have named him Richard after the former president Richard Nixon."

"Alien Nation" is British director Graham Baker's third film. And while it's bad, it is better than the first two -- "The Final Conflict," the last in the Omen series, and "Impulse," featuring William Shatner as a child molester. The first half hour, well paced, brawny and intense, looks like it was made by another director. But the rest is the cinematic equivalent of overcooked asparagus. It leaves us feeling estranged in an estranged land, pod-brained, bored senseless and screaming silently, Beam us up, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Alien Nation is playing at area theaters and is rated R for profanity and alien nudity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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