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Alien Nation

review by Anthony D.

Rated R

Studio: Fox

Running Time: 90 minutes

Starring Mandy Patinkin, James Caan, Terrence Stamp

Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon

Directed by Graham Baker

Retail Price: $22.98

Features: Featurette, Behind-the-Scenes Short, Theatrical Trailers

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 4.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

In the not too distant future, when a certain alien race of beings, The Newcomers, have been assimilated into Los Angeles' culture, crime is still rampant and under the faithful watch of the L.A.P.D., the bigoted, boozy, seedy and almost-gone to pot Lieutenant Matthew Sikes (James Caan) loses his partner in a hail of Newcomer bullets. His resolve to solve the crime teams him up with Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin sporting a plethora of make-up), a Newcomer, the first of his race to be awarded the rank of "detective." What follows is an often humorous, always entertaining "buddy flick," disguised as a science fiction thriller. The circuitous route of this crime-busting duo, like that in any good detective yarn, leads them down roads closer to the truth than the powers-that-be would like them to get. Friends in the mayor's good graces also fall under a shadow of suspicion, while seemingly unrelated slayings occur. Terrence Stamp, as a sort of Newcomer Donald Trump, who seems about to fall from the mayor's good graces with the drop of a clue, is a classic study in how to portray villainy with flair. "Alien Nation" is a first-rate thriller made special by its unique blend of elements.

Fox has delivered an outstanding anamorphic transfer of this thirteen-year-old film. The early scenes, taking place in the night-drenched streets, show next to no elements of grain. Here the streets glisten, the darkness is just black enough to be menacing and the contrast levels of shadows are presented to near-perfection. "Alien Nation" as this transfer presents it, shows its age more in the thematic elements than in the pictural element. Colors are as near to true as can be, though often the flesh-tones appear to be on the lilac side. Though there are reds, their chroma level is reduced. The highly detailed make-up work on The Newcomers, maroon-colored tattoo-like markings benefit highly from this digital presentation. Daylight scenes, interior and exterior, are well-represented by the properly framed Panavision (2.35:1)camera lens, giving the viewer a true sense of depth. Though not a perfect transfer, "Alien Nation" comes quite close.

I'm almost loathed to admit this, but: "Alien Nation"'s Dolby Digital 4.1 (mono surrounds) is every bit as exciting as some 5.1 mixes out there. Sporting an aggressive bass that kicks in almost immediately once the film begins, as well as some nifty directional sounds, realistic enough to make you duck your head as bullets buzz by. Dialogue is clean and well defined, if often on the manufactured side. The surrounds of course are limited to ambient sounds and music. "Alien Nation" also has both English and French 2.0 surround tracks to choose from. Opt for the 4.1, and you're certain not to be disappointed.

In the "Extra Features" menu, you'll find an Original Theatrical Trailer, which unfortunately gives away far too many plot points for the uninitiated viewer. The trailer is also in full-frame for some bizarre reason. Other full-frame offerings are two short features: the "Featurette" is a precursor to HBO's 'Behind the Scenes' features, and has brief comments from the three leads: Mandy Patinkin, James Caan and Terence Stamp. It's always nice to see Mandy outside of his "potato head" make-up, as well as Terence Stamp. Under the "Fox Flix" heading are five additional trailers, all for sci-fi related films: "The Abyss," and "Independence Day" are presented in widescreen, whereas "Aliens," "Enemy Mine" and "Zardoz" are represented with full-framed frazzled and faded prints.

In spite of a clever script, which often works in information not followed up on, "Alien Nation" never quite takes off beyond its confines. Fortunately, good, solid work from James Caan and Mandy Patinkin does hit pay dirt. There obviously was enough audience response to this film to generate a television series based on "Alien Nation's" concept, still seen in syndication, television's version featured none of the original cast members. There's so much to like about "Alien Nation," as evidenced in this dvd presentation: good characterization, minimal gore, intriguing premise and arresting action sequences - - but viewers expecting a science fiction monsterfest will likely be disappointed, and fans of the "Lethal Weapon" series will find a nice alternative to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover's mismatched policemen. Not a classic, but a nice visit to an alternative Los Angeles of the future.

(3.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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