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Jeff Nichols is Still Living in an ‘Alien Nation’

After two years banging away on the script, the ‘Midnight Special’ director is determined to deliver an “epic” remake.
Alien Nation
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on November 6th, 2018

News that Jeff Nichols would remake the James Caan/Mandy Patinkin buddy-cop sci-fi mashup Alien Nation first dropped more than two years ago. While most are happy to dismiss remakes as lazy Hollywood storytelling, recent revolutionary takes on old stories have renewed our faith in reimaginings. Certainly, the director of Take Shelter and Midnight Special will have something to add to the conversation and won’t repeat the plot points of the 1988 endeavor.

But what the heck is taking so long? And why can’t Nichols just move on to the next project so we can get some originality back up on the big screen? Recently, Nichols spoke to the folks over at /Film and offered an update on the project. His Alien Nation does not sound simply interested in taking another crack at racial politics through the science fiction lens. Nichols assures that this film is a big reach:

“It’s epic. I mean, it’s the biggest canvas I’ve ever painted on, but it 100-percent feels like a Jeff Nichols film, which I’m sure there are gonna be some ‘Alien Nation’ fans out there that are like, “What the fuck?” But my hope is if they … If people come to it just ready for a new story, that they’ll like it. And I put my heart and soul into it. To be the project that’s supposed to be me being a sell out, it is like the least … I’m not saying that to save face or be cool. I put so much of myself into it, it takes place in Arkansas. There’s so much of me in it.”

The original took place in the not-too-distant future of 1991. An alien ship landed in the Mojave desert and stranded the Newcomers on Earth, leaving our society to deal with a tumultuous cultural, political, and economic shakeup. These visitors are eventually integrated into our population and the usual conversation stemming from the fear of the unknown ripples across the country. Racist cop James Caan is forced to partner with the first Newcomer detective played by Mandy Patinkin, and their case delves into a human/alien conspiracy.

Digging into that Nichols quote, the three words that stick out are “What the fuck?” I’m not sure how many Alien Nation fans are out there in 2018, but anything that could possibly rock the fandom boat is ultimately a bonus for them. We don’t need a rerun; we need passion. The original film already exists — heck, there was even a television spinoff in 1989 that also led to five tv movies. They’ll fade away without alteration.

Removing the story from the grimy, overpopulated streets of Los Angeles and transplanting the characters to Arkansas is fascinating and 100% in keeping with the vision of Jeff Nichols. The filmmaker was born and bred in Little Rock, and he never fails to put a little bit of himself into every single one of his films. The real question is: how will Michael Shannon fit into the film?

Partnering with 20th Century Fox on a blockbuster project also means gaining access to funds and resources that Nichols has never quite dealt with before. That also includes more masters (beyond whatever fanbase) to serve. Nichols is fully aware that he has waded into the deep end:

“When you’re making something that big, there’s just so many things that are out of your control. In a weird way, all you can control and concentrate on is the creative aspect. The winds will blow you where they blow you, but as long as you’re telling to where you want to tell, and whenever that stops, then you gotta raise your hand and go, ‘Guys, this isn’t gonna work for me anymore.’”

Two years is a long time to crack a nut. Sure, refashioning an old tale should never be a wham-bam affair, but you also need to know when to quit. What took so long? Um, maybe you’ve heard of this gargantuan entity consuming all the intellectual properties on the planet:

“The studio seems to really love it, and we’re working on conception design of the aliens and everything else, and it happens to be a studio that’s being bought by Disney right now. I’m working with Fox on it, so it feels a little bit like you’re one of those monks doing those giant murals in sand. It might just blow away, which would be a real shame, but everybody at Fox has been so good to me about it. And they’re so positive about it, obviously I’m trying to stay in the positive zone, and hopefully knock out this last draft.”

Please don’t blow away, Alien Nation. Science fiction has always been my go-to genre for addressing real-world societal concerns. We’ve seen racism tackled head-on in everything from classic Star Trek episodes to Enemy Mine to District 9. A new Alien Nation would fit right in with recent emotional genre outpourings like Get Out, Black Panther, and Sorry to Bother You. The world is forever hungry for a change, and we appreciate the art that cries out alongside our voices.

Nichols has multiple films waiting in the fire, but he seems most eager to get Alien Nation before the camera. While films like Loving and Midnight Special received plenty of critical acclaim, they did not run away with the box office. Alien Nation is an opportunity for Nichols to reach an audience that would normally never consider his line of thinking. A success here would naturally lead to more eyes on his smaller works as well.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)