Logan’s Moving Pictures. in honor of the recent passing of legend James Caan, discusses the should-be-talked-about A LOT more: Alien Nation.
During a 2013 interview with The AV Club, actor James Caan was asked about the making of Alien Nation. Complete with a very staunch curse, he asked the interviewer, “Why would you bring that up?” Caan seemed surprised, and maybe even disappointed or disgusted, that anyone at all remembered the movie, let alone liked it or wanted to discuss it. He admitted that he didn’t get along with the director, Graham Barker, but he did praise his co-star in the film, Mandy Patinkin. For James Caan though, Alien Nation was a paycheck. I doubt it was the first time he felt that way about a film he was making and I’m more than certain it wasn’t the last.
One of the things I wonder about often when watching less than critically acclaimed movies, even ones that have fan/cult followings, is how the actors feel about it both during and after filming. Especially guys like Caan, the ones with seemingly tough demeanors, always playing gruff characters. Unfortunately, he was one of only a handful who would speak his mind about most of those things it if he was asked, even throwing some shade at Michael Mann’s work years after their collaboration on Thief. Either because he knew he had the talent to keep working despite his honesty, or because he just didn’t care. It was probably a little bit of both.
When he sadly passed away I immediately wanted to just binge a bunch of his great performances, both dramatic and comedic. Or both in the case of Bottle Rocket. I know a lot of people immediately went to the well of his most famous works; things like The Godfather and Elf, the aforementioned Thief, but I caught myself remembering a Christmas movie outing with my Dad and brothers to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I thought he gave such a funny, subdued performance as the dad in that film, and it’s the only time I could remember him working in animation at all. I’ve also been on a Stephen King kick of late, so I thought maybe I’d track down Misery and give it a rewatch. Or even Bulletproof, another paycheck film for him I’m sure, but one I remember Ryan loving at the time (if you recall his fondness for early Sandler).
I couldn’t stop thinking about Alien Nation though. Possibly because when we were younger Ryan was a massive fan of the television show and its spin-off films. They combined two genres he adored procedurals and sci-fi. We’d seen the original movie at some point, I believe in one of the weekend rental marathons with our dad. But it was the TV show that Ryan really held dear. At a comic convention several years ago I even picked up the graphic novel produced from one of the unmade scripts from the show for him.
Though, the most likely reason I couldn’t stop thinking about it was because the VHS tape has been about 5 feet from my desk for the better part of two years. It was one of the films in his collection, and when I began mulling over what to do with a mass amount of outdated tapes, one of the ideas was to build makeshift shelving. Alien Nation was one of the first tapes I used. It also meant I couldn’t just pop it into the VCR for a rewatch, since it was now permanently bonded to three other movies. Fortunately, it’s available for rent or purchase through various streaming places, and I was more than happy to shell out a few bucks to revisit it.
I think it’s maybe obligatory at this point for anyone discussing older sci-fi stories to talk about how they are often meant to be an allegory to the world’s problems. Fantastical approaches that illuminate the dangers of things like censorship, zealotry, imperialism, fascism, racism, classism, sexism, ageism, all the negativisms you can think of really. It’s something I read and hear discussed so often that I think I’ve kind of become deaf and blind to the truth of the notion. But it is true, and maybe that’s something Caan either lost sight of or just didn’t appreciate about this film. Understandable, of course, when it seems like his time making it was less than invigorating.
With Alien Nation what you’re seeing is, naturally, an allegory for immigration. Talking about immigration though, especially with people who are staunch detractors, also encapsulates many of the negative opinions of humanity, most especially racism. Truly, it’s too much to unpack here, but I will say that anyone that boils down racism or discrimination to something as trite as a political issue probably has a lot of soul searching to do. Or at the very least, they need to truly see some experiences that aren’t reflective of their own small world.
I was amazed at how much has been borrowed from this movie in so much of the sci-fi we’ve gotten since it was released. Yes, Alien Nation does a lot of its own borrowing, so really it’s just hammering home the point I’ve already brought up, but I was still stunned. Especially with the similarities, I saw to the more well-regarded District 9. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and it’s receiving a sequel soon apparently. I remember making jokes about the resemblances when it was released in 2009, especially with Ryan, but when I revisited Alien Nation I was amazed at how right those jokes were. District 9 might as well have been a soft, more action-heavy reboot of this franchise. Even more so the Will Smith-led Netflix hit Bright, which substituted fantasy creatures for the aliens.
Alien Nation is more grounded than either one of those movies ever even attempts to be, and in my eyes infinitely better. We don’t just see the downtrodden or blue-collar sections of society, we get a good glimpse at those who live the wealthy life, showcasing exactly how money will often push aside people’s prejudices, and how true that old adage about corruption is. Especially if that money is used to help further divide the haves from the have-nots.
With all of that in mind, it was both alarming and refreshing to see that a thirty-five-year-old sci-fi film, written off by its biggest star as irrelevant and silly, is as prescient today as it would have been if it were released in 1958. It is an awful feeling to know that there are lessons we still haven’t learned, no matter how long we’re here, and no matter how many times these issues arise. But we’re still trying, and maybe that counts for something.
I think Mandy Patinkin as Detective Sam “George” Francisco says it best:
“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.”