Cliches and Aliens: three movies

Here are three movies that jazz up stock formulae by adding aliens. Only one of them works though and that would be ALIEN NATION (1988), starring James Caan and Mandy Patinkin as respectively a human cop, Sykes, and the alien “Newcomer” George Francisco he’s partnered with.

In the opening (set five years in the future) we learn how a UFO crashed outside LA in 1988, and turned out to be a literal slave ship. Newly freed, the Newcomers (the name Tectonese was added in the TV series) have settled into LA like any other immigrant group. Sykes isn’t fond of the “slags,” particularly after one of them blows his partner away. George, however, is investigating a “slagtown” murder using the same kind of high-powered gun so Sykes figures partnering with him will get him to catch his partner’s killer eventually.

The film is a boatload of cliches. Antagonistic Cops turned to Buddy Cops. Car Chases. Sykes as a divorced, bitter burn-out (divorce in 1980s cop films demonstrates how cutoff the character is from everyone else). A testimonial dinner for a Newcomer (Terence Stamp) who turns out to be the villain (as Harlan Ellison once said, anyone in a cop movie getting a testimonial dinner will turn out to be rotten). A climax fighting a killer who just refuses to stay dead. Nevertheless, the movie works. The alien element makes it more interesting and Caan and Patinkin totally nail their roles. “I like my horizons rather narrow.”

THE WATCH (2012) has small-town Costco Manager Ben Stiller (the product placement here is sledgehammer-subtle) forms a neighborood watch after one of his employees is murdered and skinned (“Our society has rules — and one of those rules is that you can’t murder people and steal their skin!”). He and his crew (Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade) then spend the movie bonding awkwardly as they go the Zero to Hero character arc and try to thwart an alien invasion.  I did like the one good alien being unable to deactivate the doomsday device (“I’m not an engineer, I don’t know how it works!”) but I’m annoyed that despite Stiller emphasizing in the opening scenes that he wants friends of all ethnicities (“I don’t have a black friend yet but I’m in negotiation.”) there’s no payoff. Overall, a stock and unfunny bro-comedy that doesn’t benefit from the added aliens (who are played straight rather than parodic). “We’re aliens — that’s what we do we come to planets, destroy them and move on.”

I AM NUMBER FOUR (2011) is an even less interesting movie (though the Y/A book it’s based on has spawned five sequels to date), recycling stock tropes of teenage superheroes and Chosen Ones. The protagonist is a superhuman alien looking remarkably like a hot teenage boy, hiding out on Earth from the malevolent aliens who destroyed his home world and have already killed three other survivors. Just as “Number Four” starts to fall in love with a classmate, guess who turns up?

Both Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin see this as a Twilight riff, with aliens instead of vampires. They might be right but it feels more like they’re stealing from comics (the hero’s angst at hiding his powers is way familiar)— given Buffy alum Marti Noxon was one of the writers — Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For that matter it’s not that different from the early 1980s show about an alien teen in exile, The Powers of Matthew Star. Competently acted, but that doesn’t help when things are this dull — and the aliens are particularly dull, with no personality other than Evil. “My entire childhood was an episode of X-FILES.”

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