Alien Nation Ahead of Its Time and Of Its Time

I re-watched Alien Nation last night, and that movie was ahead of its time. Well, maybe that’s not quite the right way of looking or thinking about it. Maybe it is better to say that for as much progress we as a society have made, we haven’t moved much beyond a lot of the issues the movie addresses. So, in that sense, it was very much of its time, and that time is still now. Or something. I don’t feel great today, but I wanted to write this while thoughts are still fresh.

The picture shows a poster of Alien Nation, a movie that still resonates with its message welcoming immigrants.

The movie is a buddy-cop in the 1980s tradition with aliens as the twist. Matthey Sykes (James Caan) is a grizzled detective who loses his long time partner and friend during a shootout with some Newcomers (aliens). In one of the most movie things ever, he’s on the job the next day and volunteers to work with the LAPD’s first plain clothes Newcomer detective: Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin). Sykes laughs at that name, refuses to call him Sam, instead naming him George. So far, except for the aliens, things are pretty standard.

Alien Nation Poses Questions About Immigration We’re Still Answering

But, that’s the thing that makes Alien Nation both ahead of its time and a product of its time. The film makers present the Newcomers, and humans’ reactions to them as multi-faceted. Yes, there is a lot of bigotry and fear of the aliens. Sykes identifies himself as a bigot. And in a movie trope that has gone by the wayside–the man on the street exposition interview–a college student laments having to compete with Newcomers, who are smarter and generally more talented than humans. To some degree, this fear is understandable. The Newcomers aren’t just from another country; they’re from another world. It’s hard not to miss the immigration allegory because it’s not really an allegory.

What amazed me as I watched it this time (I’ve seen the movie quite a few times) is how similar its language is to today’s conversation concerning immigration. You’d think that in the 31 years since this movie hit theaters , we’d have found a way to move the conversation forward. However, the difference is, the movie makes a statement that while there may be some bad apples, overall we should welcome the aliens.

One of the most interesting statements concerning immigration the movie makes is that we all have things in our past we are ashamed of. Before coming to Earth, the Newcomers lived as slaves. To keep them strong and productive, their masters gave them a drug called Jabroka. Jabroka is analogous to PCP, and it is bad news. All of the Newcomers were on the drug, and it is their secret shame.

More Commentary on Immigrants and Immigration

George expresses this when he tells Sykes about the drug, which a cadre of rich and powerful Newcomers, are now attempting to produce on Earth. George tells Sykes that if humans knew about the drug and what it does to Newcomers, they would be afraid and turn against their planet’s new inhabitants.

I like that it’s the rich and powerful Newcomers–the best and brightest of the bunch–who are the criminals. This isn’t a street gang operation with thugs. This is methodically planned and requires resources. Plus, Terrance Stamp plays the main villain, and he’s always a treat.

Something else that struck me about how Alien Nation was both ahead of its time as well as of its time was this speech from George to Sykes:

“You humans are very curious to us. You invite us to live among you in an atmosphere of equality that we’ve never known before. You give us ownership of our own lives for the first time, and you ask no more of us than you do of yourselves.I hope you understand how special your world is; how unique a people you humans are. Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to us that so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves.”

That right there says it all, and makes this movie as relevant to today’s conversation concerning immigrants as it was in 1988.

So, there’s some of my thoughts about Alien Nation. I hope you enjoyed reading them. Let me know what you think of the movie, its message, or this post in the comments.

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