The best word to describe the original 1988 film Alien Nation would be "disappointing." Yeah, sure, I know, some people love this film, but it is most certainly not a film worth loving. A clever deviation from the buddy cop films of that era, Alien Nation never lived up to its fullest potential, and as a consequence it was really nothing more than Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours, only with extraterrestrials. And that's why when the television spin-off emerged on the still-in-its-infancy Fox Network a year later, there was no reason to believe the show would be any better than the movie. But the television incarnation of Alien Nation--which only lasted one season--proved to be one of those rare instances in which the TV knock-off turned out to be superior to the film from which it was derived.
The biggest shortcoming of the film Alien Nation was that it was, for all intents and purposes, the standard cop film of the era. The interesting premise--a space ship carrying a quarter of a million extraterrestrials crashed in California, leaving the Tenctonese "Newcomers" stranded on Earth--was actually very solid. The film followed the partnering of gruff, bigoted cop Matt Sykes (James Caan) with Newcomer police detective Samuel "George" Francisco (Mandy Patinkin). Even with that original premise, the film never managed to deviate from the standard clash of cultures/ideologies/personalities that defined films like Lethal Weapon, Walter Hill's 48 Hours and Red Heat, later garbage like Tango and Cash, or the classic pairings of Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks (1994's Back in Action and 1995's Tough and Deadly). The end result was a film with an original concept that managed to operate with a deficit of originality.
Alien Nation the television series recast Sykes as Sikes, with Gray Graham as the still-bigoted-but-not-as-much-so Earthman, and Eric Pierpoint as Francisco, the Newcomer detective that is physically and mentally superior, but still a bit naïve when it comes to life on Earth. And if that was all the show had done, then it would have been even more disappointing as the film. But what the series did was that it introduced a cast of supporting characters that was missing from the film, which in turn gave the series a depth and dimension that was never there in the earlier incarnation. Principal among the supporting cast was the Francisco family, George's wife Susan (Michele Scarabelli), rebel-without-a-cause teenage son Buck (Sean Six), and daughter Emily (Lauren Woodland), and the success of the series revolved around the fact that most of the episodes took time to deal with the family dynamic among the Newcomers as they try to adjust to life on Earth. Another pivotal character was Cathy (Terri Treas), the Newcomer who lives next door to Sykes, and slowly becomes his love interest as the series progresses. The introduction of these new characters allowed the Alien Nation series to become as much a family drama and exploration of prejudice and racism as it was a standard cop drama with sci-fi elements, and the cumulative effect was an engaging series that promised to get better with age. And then the series was cancelled at the end of the first season.
The final episode of the first season ended with a cliffhanger that found Susan and Emily Francisco falling victim to a deadly biological weapon designed by human separatists to kill off the Newcomers. For fans of the show, this was a brutal way to leave things, as there was no hope for any sort of closure with the series. Thankfully, four years after the series ended, Fox aired the first of five made-for-television movies that not only resolved the series cliffhanger, but also fleshed out the characters and their relationships.
Alien Nation: Dark Horizon (Original airdate Oct. 25, 1994)--This one picks up exactly where the series finale left off: Susan and Emily are exposed to a deadly virus meant to kill off all the Newcomers. Meanwhile, a signal from the Newcomer ship that crashed on Earth reaches a Tenctonese slave ship, and Ahpossno, a ruthless overseer, is sent to find out what happened to all those slaves that went missing. Of course, Ahpossno manages to make his way to Los Angeles, and arrives just in time to help save Susan and Emily, endearing himself to the Francisco family and Cathy, but not with Sikes, who is dubious of the stranger that claims to have been living alone in the desert since the crash over five years earlier.
Originally there was no plan to do more than one film, so Dark Horizon attempts to wrap up the original series, while at the same time offering a new story. The results are mixed at best, and just a bit contrived, but for fans of the original series, it was nice just to see the characters reunited. The special effects, which were neither special nor effective back in 1994, look even more ridiculous now, as does Graham's shaggy hair style that proves to be more distracting than if the actor had a live raccoon on his head, playing a kazoo. But pitfalls and problems not withstanding, this was a fun film, and if it had proven to be the final installment in the Alien Nation franchise, then it would have been acceptable.
Alien Nation: Body and Soul (Original airdate Oct. 10, 1995)--The success of Dark Horizon prompted Fox to greenlight two more Alien Nation films. In many ways, this second sequel improves on the earlier one, and delivers more of what made the series so compelling--good old fashioned drama. The main plot revolves around a mysterious girl who appears to be half Newcomer and half human. She is somehow mysteriously linked to a giant Newcomer, and for reasons no one can comprehend, someone wants both of them dead. As it turns out, the appearance of the girl and the giant reveals the existence of a shadow organization that has been using Tenctonese technology to develop new weapons on Earth. Meanwhile, Sikes and his Newcomer love interest Cathy decide to explore their relationship further, but because of the differences in their physiology, they must take a class, which does not sit well with Sikes. And as all of this is going on, Buck, the teenage son of Francisco, is dealing with his growing feelings of alienation, and his dislike for life on Earth.
As a series, Alien Nation was always strongest when delving into the characters of the Newcomers as a race, and wrestling with the issues they face. Although the subplot involving Buck gets a bit heavy-handed, it is also indicative of the storytelling tricks that made the show as compelling as it was.
Alien Nation: Millennium (Original airdate Jan. 2, 1996)--Of the five made-for-television Alien Nation films, this is the one that seems the most recycled from the original series. Set on verge of the coming of the year 2000, this also has the distinction of being a bit more dated as it plays up on the Y2K paranoia that didn't even start until almost three years after this film aired. The story revolves around Tenctonese faith, and a cult of humans who have fallen under the spell of a Newcomer "prophet" that uses an ancient religious artifact to fill their spiritual void. The whole thing is of course a scam meant to dupe humans out of their money, and it serves as a metaphor for people who look for spiritual salvation in other forms of faith, trying to make sense of their meaningless lives. Sikes and Francisco become inadvertently involved in the case while investigating a series of suicides that all turn out to be involved in the cult, which has managed to lure Buck into the fold as he looks for direction in his life.
Alien Nation: The Enemy Within (Original airdate Nov. 12, 1996)--The second and third made for TV films proved to be successful, so Fox once again decided to return to the Alien Nation franchise with two more movies, shot back-to-back. As with the earlier films in this series, The Enemy Within expands the background universe of the Newcomers, but this is the film that really shows marked growth among the characters. The action starts out with the murder of an Eeno, the lowest members of the Newcomer caste society reviled by nearly all Tenctonese, including the usually easygoing Detective George Francisco. Sikes can't understand Francisco's disdain for the Eeno, but he sees that it is clouding his judgment as a cop. Complicating matters for Francisco is the strain on his marriage from his wife Susan feeling that he is no longer interested in her. She toys with the possibility of having an affair, and becomes increasingly insecure when George is asked by another Newcomer couple to help them conceive a child (it takes three Tenctonese to make a baby). Meanwhile, Sikes tries to adjust to his new life when Cathy moves in with him, but the two of them find that cohabitation is even more complicated than they imagined.
All five of the films in the series have strengths and weaknesses, but The Enemy Within is among the strongest of the group. As an overall piece, Alien Nation was always a show about grappling prejudice and the attempt of the "other" to try and fit in. The prejudice encountered by the Newcomers was generally directed at them by the human race. The show seldom took on the perspective of racism and bigotry from the point-of-view of the everyday Newcomer directed at other Newcomers. But it's this variation in perspective that makes this particular film stand out. By casting Francisco in the role of the intolerant bigot, this particular film shows how prejudice can corrupt even the best people.
Alien Nation: The Udara Legacy (Original airdate July 29, 1997)--The last of the made for TV movies brings to an end the Alien Nation franchise with much better closure than the original series offered. Set nearly a decade after the Tenctonese first arrived, The Udara Legacy opens by revealing that a Newcomer is running for Senate. This pivotal backstory sets the tone for a story that revolves around the Udara, a radical group of freedom fighters who resorted to violence and murder back in the days when the Tenctonese were still slaves. But with the freedom of life on Earth, there has been no need for the Udara, until someone begins using them as assassins. When Sikes and Francisco begin investigating a series of unrelated violent crimes committed by otherwise law-abiding Newcomers, they uncover a sinister plot using unwitting Udara "sleeper agents." This leads to the revelation that Susan, Francisco's wife, is herself a member of Udara, and that the entire family is now caught up in high-stakes game of murder. And while this is all going on, Buck, who has lacked direction most of his life, finds his calling when he joins the police academy.
Alien Nation: Ultimate Movie Collection is a nice companion piece to the original television series (also available on DVD). As a series of films it remains primarily faithful to the show and maintains the integrity of the world that was created (the notable exception being that the Francisco's infant daughter disappears somewhere along the way, never to be mentioned again). And what works with these films, as well as episodes of the series, is that it always remains character driven.
The five films are presented on three discs. Disc 2 and 3 are double-sided, single layer.
Alien Nation: Ultimate Movie Collection is presented Full Frame. The picture image transfer is good, with solid picture quality. One of my biggest complaints was that the series always looked liked it was filmed on sets built on a soundstage. That's to say that nothing looked like it was set in the real world. The same problem exists in these films, which have a great picture quality that actually calls attention to the manufactured sets.
Alien Nation: Ultimate Movie Collection is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo in English with optional subtitles and optional Spanish language track and subtitles. The audio mix on all the films is good, with good levels that remain consistent throughout.
I consider myself to be a fan of both the television series and the made for TV films that followed, but even as such, there's only so much Alien Nation I can take. The selection of bonus material on Alien Nation: Ultimate Movie Collection is for the most die-hard fans who simply can't get enough of the Newcomers. Each film features an audio commentary by Kenneth Johnson, the director and executive producer of all five movies. Johnson's commentaries cover every single detail of each production, to the extent he lists off acting credits of bit players and extras. He tells you more than you would ever hope to know about each film, and if he doesn't go into details on the commentary track, he's just as likely to explain it in the series of "Making of" featurettes that accompany Dark Horizon, Body and Soul, Millennium, and The Enemy Within. The problem with the featurettes is that they all have a home movie look about them, as if they were never shot with the intention of being anything other than a personal recording of the production process. Johnson narrates each one of the mini docs, but once you've watched one or two of them, and been inundated with endless facts about who worked on what, and who is married to whom, it all becomes noise. The Udara Legacy forgoes the making of featurettes for "A Family Gathering: The Director and Actors Look Back on Alien Nation." Much like the other behind-the-scenes supplements, this has a home movie quality that can have a hit-and-miss affect. There is also a collection of still galleries, gag reels and storyboards.
If you were a fan of the Alien Nation television series, then you're going to want to get this collection of films. If you never watched the original series, these movies certainly stand up on their own, but definitely work better in conjunction with the shows.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]