Missed Opportunities: Alien Nation (1988, directed by Graham Baker)


Alien Nation starts out with an intriguing premise but sadly doesn’t do enough with it.

In 1988, a spaceship lands in Mojave Desert.  Inside are 300,000 humanoid aliens, known as the Newcomers.  Intended to serve as intergalactic slaves, the Newcomers are now stuck on Earth.  (Of course, in the view of many humans, it’s Earth that’s stuck with them.)  Three years later, the Newcomers have settled in Los Angeles and they have adopted human names.  Some of them, like businessman William Harcourt (Terrence Stamp), have become successful and have been accepted by the human establishment.  The majority remain second-class citizens, facing discrimination and feeling alone in a world that doesn’t seem to want them.

Detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan) does not like the Newcomers but, after his partner is killed by one of the aliens, he ends up working with one.  Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) is the first Newcomer to have been promoted to the rank of detective and is eager to prove himself.  Sykes renames him George and enlists him to investigate a series of recent Newcomer deaths.  Sykes’s real goal is to use Francisco’s Newcomer connections to investigate the death of his partner.  What the two of them discover is that the deaths are linked to a drug called Jabroka, which has no effect on human but was previously used to keep the Newcomers enslaved.

Alien Nation starts out with an intriguing premise.  I love the early scenes of Sykes driving down the streets of Los Angeles and seeing Newcomer prostitutes, Newcomer families, and even a Newcomer dance studio.  There is a lot promise in those scenes and they capture the feeling of a familiar world that has been irrevocably changed.  Both Caan and Patinkin give good performances and the alien makeup is still impressive.  Unfortunately, once Sykes and George start their investigation, the movie becomes a standard-issue police movie with a plot that could easily have been lifted from a Lethal Weapon rip-off.  So many interesting ideas are left unexplored, making Alien Nation an intriguing missed opportunity.  (There was later a television series based on the movie, which explored the Newcomer culture in greater detail.)

Alien Nation still has a strong cult following and I wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced District 9.  In 2016, it was announced that Jeff Nichols would be writing and directing a remake.  Nichols seems like the ideal director for a film like this and this is the rare case of a remake that I’m actually looking forward to.

Feeling the Burn: Death Spa (1989, directed by Michael Fischa)


Michael (William Bumiller) owns the hottest health club in Los Angeles but that may not stay true if he can’t do something about all the guests dying.  Members get baked alive in the sauna.  Another is killed when a malfunctioning workout machine pulls back his arms and causes a rib to burst out of one side of his body.  Shower tiles fly off the wall and panic a bunch of naked women.  A woman loses her arm in a blender and a man is somehow killed by a frozen fish.  Strangely, all of the deaths don’t seem to hurt business as people still keep coming to the gym.  Surely, there are other, safer health clubs in Los Angeles.

Michael suspects that his brother-in-law, David (Merritt Butrick), might be to blame for all of the trouble.  David is good with computers and since this movie is from 1989, that means that he can do anything.  (David is described as being a “hacker,” which may be the first time that overused term was used in a film.)  Michael feels that David has never forgiven him for the suicide of his sister.  Two useless cops show up to investigate the murders while the spa gets ready for Mardi Gras night.

This incredibly cheesy horror movie used to be a mainstay on HBO, where young viewers like me appreciated all of the gore and slightly older viewers appreciated all of the nudity.  Viewed today, Death Spa is a real nostalgia trip.  From the leg warmers to the bulky computers to the choreographed workout routines, this is a movie that could only have been made in the 80s.  The plot is beyond stupid but some of the gore effects were well-executed and that scene where the frozen fish comes to life continues to amaze.  Sadly, this was Merritt Butrick’s last film.  The actor, who was best known for playing Captain’s Kirk’s son in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, died the same year that Death Spa was released.

A Movie A Day #326: MacArthur (1977, directed by Joseph Sargent)


The year is 1962 and Douglas MacArthur (Gregory Peck), the legendary general, visits West Point for one last time.  While he meets the graduates and gives his final speech, flashbacks show highlights from MacArthur’s long military career.  He leaves and then returns to Philippines.  He accepts the Japanese surrender and then helps Japan rebuild and recover from the devastation of the war.  He half-heartedly pursues the Presidency and, during the Korean War, gets fired by Harry Truman (Ed Flanders).

MacArthur is a stolid biopic about one America’s most famous and controversial generals.  It was produced by Frank McCarthy, a former general who knew MacArthur and who previously won an Oscar for producing Patton.  McCarthy was obviously hoping that MacArthur was do its subject what Patton did for George Patton and both films follow the same basic pattern. a warts-and-all portrait of a World War II general with all of the action centered around the performance of a bigger-than-life actor in the title role.  Though obviously made for a low budget, MacArthur is a well-made and well-acted movie but it suffers because Douglas MacArthur was just not as interesting a figure as George Patton.  Gregory Peck does a good job subtly suggesting MacArthur’s vanity along with capturing his commitment to his duty but he never gets a scene that’s comparable to George C. Scott’s opening speech in Patton.  The main problem with MacArthur, especially when compared to Patton, is that George Patton was a born warrior while Douglas MacArthur was a born administrator and it is always going to be more exciting to watch a general lead his men into battle then to watch him sign executive orders.