ALIEN NATION: The Best Sci-Fi Buddy Cop Movie Shane Black Never Wrote

Mismatched LA cops? Check. Murder mystery leading to a much bigger conspiracy? Check. Space aliens as an allegory for racism and intolerance? Hang on...

In honor of The Nice Guys (which you can buy tickets for here), we're kicking off a month of weekly spotlight articles celebrating Shane Black and the subgenres visited by his latest film.

Both on paper and as it unspools, 1988’s Alien Nation feels very much like a Shane Black story.

Over title credits rendered in a decidedly Lethal Weapon-esque typeface, two cops trade barbs while driving through a rain-slicked, sketchy Los Angeles neighborhood. Bigoted white cop Sykes (James Caan) spews racist comments about the neighborhood’s immigrant populace. His black partner "Tugg" (Roger Aaron Brown) listens and chuckles, delivering some key exposition about dragging Sykes to his estranged daughter's wedding in a week. Within minutes, Sykes and Tugg are embroiled in an armed robbery gone wrong, and Tugg is killed.

Sykes is then partnered with rookie Detective Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) - one of the immigrants Sykes so despises. Sykes drags his new partner through seedy bars, strip clubs, and drug factories, disobeying their captain’s orders in order to find his partner’s killer. Eventually the two uncover a much larger conspiracy that goes from the mean streets of LA to the highest echelons of private industry. The finale takes them on chases across what look like the same stretches of Los Angeles highway featured in Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with a watery climax lit by a police helicopter. Alien Nation would be the quintessential ‘80s mismatched buddy cop action flick, except for the fact that the “immigrants” - the people Sykes hates, and the rookie with whom he’s partnered - are extraterrestrials.

But discussing Alien Nation under the umbrella of “Shane Black-flavored buddy cop movies” does a bit of a disservice to Alien Nation. Released October 7, 1988, 19 months after Lethal Weapon, it’s possible but kind of unlikely that the film’s script is intentionally riffing on Black’s mismatched LA cop story. Rather, the film seemed to ride a concurrent crest of late '80s "sci/fi buddy cop" movies that includes Jack Sholder’s terrific The Hidden, as well as lower-rent entries Dead Heat and I Come In Peace. By the early '90s these titles were tossed into the all-skate of cable TV, and cinephiles of a certain age watched them over and over. Though none of these movies are particularly heralded today, Alien Nation is not only the Shane Blackest of the bunch, but it stands out from the pack as the one with something on its mind.

At the top of the film, a news report sets the stage: Los Angeles, 1991. It’s the third anniversary of a derelict alien slave ship landing in the Mojave desert. 300,000 “Newcomers” - the ship's cargo - have recently been released from quarantine and are being assimilated into the LA area. Stronger than humans and highly intelligent, the Newcomers are taking jobs, disrupting grade curves, and breeding mistrust and resentment from a sizable faction of the human population. That prejudice manifests in surprisingly grounded ways. The Newcomers are deemed repulsive because they eat raw beaver meat and get drunk on sour milk. One character notes they all “look alike.” They even have their own racial slur already: to Sykes, they’re all “slags,” and the low-income neighborhood where they live and work (subtly tagged with alien graffiti) is called Slagtown. It's a canny bit of world-building, and a neat trick of the film, to render the fantastical so matter-of-factly that we're immediately on board and invested in the plot proper. 

Make no mistake: the allegorical racism in Alien Nation is by no means subtle - and that’s what’s perfect about it. For teens ingesting this movie on HBO alongside 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon in the late '80s, Alien Nation is almost revolutionary in its simple message of tolerance. Where the straight buddy-cop movies of the period are today riddled with dated comments and attitudes toward minorities of nearly every variety, Alien Nation’s very premise puts it ahead of the pack, at least politically. One wonders if that's partly why such a liberal-minded film pandered so hard to xenophobia in its marketing. 

The poster teases a conservative nightmare ("taken jobs"!), yet the film itself is full of hope. There’s a simple, heart-wrenching moment early in the film in which Sykes’ captain asks a room full of white and Hispanic detectives for volunteers to partner with Francisco, the department’s first Newcomer detective. Over ADR of old white guys grumbling that they don’t have to put up with working with a slag, Sykes looks at Tugg’s empty chair for a moment, walks in and volunteers. He has more overt, selfish reasons for taking on the Newcomer as a partner, but that tiny grace note, that pensive look at his black partner’s empty chair, is a wonderful, human touch.

Over the course of their investigation crusty, racist Sykes is repeatedly disarmed by the pacifist, smiling Detective Francisco. As Sykes and “George” (the Newcomers were given often-silly Earth names by a jaded immigration office, and Sykes refuses to call his new partner “Sam Francisco”) get drunk together in Sykes’ apartment, George placidly shares his frustration with the human race. “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.”  A too on-the-nose speech, or maybe this is a message that needn’t be overcomplicated? Alien Nation is, at times, admittedly little more than a serviceable actioner, a b-movie with delusions of grandeur. But there's an admirable quality to its workmanlike execution and its steadfast idealism. More often than not, the film relies on humor over spectacle to deliver its simple message, and though the quips are never on the level of a Shane Black (not for lack of trying - there's a solid Nixon gag in there), they still land today. And for all Sykes' self-professed bigotry, there’s a subtle, hilarious thread throughout the film painting him as very sexually curious about Newcomer females. 

The film proudly carries a Planet of the Apes-level broad social message that, absorbed at the right age, landed hard. It’s maybe not a coincidence that Rod Serling penned the Planet of the Apes screenplay, and Alien Nation was written by Rockne S. O’Bannon*, a major voice behind the 1980s Twilight Zone reboot. Unsubtle or not, the film's message is what Martin Scorsese called "cinematic smuggling," and Alien Nation thankfully never STOPS being a '80s buddy cop movie. Eventually, the duo learns that the murders they’re investigating are tied to the creation and sale of a powerful Newcomer drug - the very narcotic that kept George’s people docile and content during their enslavement. As they track the plot to its mastermind (Terence Stamp, all menace and villainous British accent under his makeup), they realize a drug conviction is out of the question: the drug has no effect on humans and is technically not even illegal. In proper ‘80s cop fashion, protocol is ditched (George, ever the quick study, declares "fuck procedure!"). Sykes is out to avenge his dead partner; George’s goal is nothing less than the preservation of his race from a holocaust of addiction - and possible extermination. In a sweet grace note, the film ends as George accompanies Sykes to his daughter's wedding, delivering on the promise of Sykes' late partner. And in a final moment of Shane Blackness, the film ends on a random bit of voiceover - the only instance of such in the entire film.

Though Alien Nation was only moderately successful upon release, all those cable airings grew it a cult, and the property spawned a TV series, a handful of TV-movies and a batch of tie-in novels. In 1991, a Planet of the Apes comic book crossover was published. A remake has been threatening to happen for a few years; such a story might be ripe for retelling in our current climate. The original version is certainly one worth revisiting. 

*Update: Thanks to our commenters for pointing out that Alien Nation had an uncredited rewrite by producer Gale Anne Hurd's then-husband, James Cameron.