These days, with the average movie executive IQ hovering around freezing, movies seem to want to explain everything no matter how distant from the plot. Movies that let mystery accumulate at the edges make them seem much bigger than they actually are. It also allows the geekier amongst us to speculate on the unanswered questions and parceled hints, letting us fanwank a mundane genre piece into a cult classic. One of these was 1988’s sci-fi buddy cop flick Alien Nation, which left a question hanging that could never be left unanswered today: what in the name of George Francisco were the Controllers and more importantly, where were they? I am going to attempt to pick through the various crumbs the movie left to come to some kind of conclusion about what the Controllers were and what they thought of losing 300,000 slaves.
First, a disclaimer: I will ignore the TV show and various TV movies. Why? I never watched them. I don’t have a better reason than that.
I recognize that there are those out there who haven’t even seen this movie, other than its recent reimagining, District 9. (Just kidding. Kind of.) The plot goes like this: in 1988, a shipload of aliens, a genetically engineered slave race, called Newcomers (or Slags if you’re from Arizona) lands on earth. They assimilate more or less, like the good little metaphors they are. Three years later in the near future of 1991, the very first Newcomer detective teams up with an ‘80s cop cliché who doesn’t play by the rules. The rest is a fairly normal buddy cop film about rich people turned drug smugglers with an alien angle. Here’s the thing, though. The Newcomers were slaves, right? Enslaved by what exactly? There’s no reference to a rebellion, no mention of an escape. The masters are only ever directly referred to a single time in dialogue, and called Controllers.
As a genetically engineered race, the Newcomers were no accident of evolution. Their creators – probably the Controllers, but possibly not, which I’ll get into later – wanted the perfect labor force. This starts with superior strength and durability, both of which the Newcomers have in spades. In addition to the muscles, they also have two hearts, a primary and a secondary, and are capable of surviving the destruction of one of them (although this apparently pisses them off). In addition, the barrel chest implies large lungs, which would make sense in keeping the hearts pumping oxygenated blood into those powerful muscles. The Newcomers are also immune to the harmful effects of breathing methane gas. It’s unknown if this extends to other gases, but whatever they actually need to survive is in earth’s atmosphere, so probably oxygen or nitrogen. Chances are, the Controllers are also oxygen/nitrogen breathers, and they have similar physical limits as humanity or are even weaker physically. The Newcomers would handle the hard labor that the Controllers were unwilling and incapable of doing.
Their diet, with some superficial differences bears this out. Newcomers can only eat raw food, and though they are never shown eating vegetables, it’s likely that they’re omnivores. It’s cheaper to feed an omnivore than a pure carnivore. The fact that rotten milk gets them drunk was probably an unintended bit of awesome.
In terms of sex, Newcomers are monogamous and mate for life. Because of the sexual dimorphism displayed, it’s clear that this is cultural rather than physical (in truly monogamous species, males and females are the same size and tend to lack showy secondary sex characteristics.). Based on an insult, we know that Newcomers have a mating season, which would allow the Controllers to control the population. Odds are there’s a word for “Custer” in their language. In any case, the Newcomers are probably biologically incapable of breeding out of season, which is then backed up with cultural taboos to discourage even recreational sex.
Newcomers are extremely intelligent and adaptable. Normally, this would be the kiss of death in designing a slave species. A perfect slave species would be dumb as a bag of hammers and probably mute, making it hard for them to organize a cohesive rebellion. Making them intelligent only makes sense if the Newcomers were expected to work in a wide variety of situations with a wide variety of dangerous equipment. In the film, the only reference to labor is to “the mines,” but this doesn’t necessarily mean they were all mining the same thing. Although it probably all smelled like methane.
So you’ve engineered a slave race that’s stronger, tougher, just as intelligent as you and can breathe stuff that would kill you in seconds. Congratulations, you’re officially in a civilization of amoral retards. Without some control mechanisms in place, the Controller civilization would just be a red stain on some Class M world. Fortunately, they were kids once and knew how to deal with snails. The Newcomers dissolve in seawater. Any slave rebellion would be immediately crushed with a simple firehose. Not content with the colossal dick move of denying the Newcomers bikini season, the Controllers addicted the populace to a drug called “Jabluka,” a narcotic that looks like windex-flavored syrup and tastes like detergent. The Newcomers don’t require this to survive – it’s not a lysine-level dependency. Why they aren’t addicted on a genetic level implies either a criminal lack of genetic skill by the Controllers, or a strong cultural taboo against it. Still, with every Newcomer hopelessly addicted to this Super-Heroin, docility is insured.
Beyond turning every Newcomer into a Chris Rock joke waiting to happen, Jabluka has a strange side effect. An overdose metamorphoses the Newcomer into a bestial killing machine (known as “miner’s disease”). Muscle mass and aggression increases, teeth become more pronounced, the body becomes more reptilian, and any semblance of intelligence goes out the window.
At this point, the Newcomer attacks whatever it sees. Why build something like this in? Assuming that this isn’t an accident, it’s possible the Newcomers pulled double duty as shock troops. Think about it: drop a shipload of these guys on a planet with a vat of Jabluka, and soon you’ve got a force of methane-breathing killing machines roaming the countryside. Once the shock attack is finished, the regular troops come in with some saltwater firetrucks and the planet is pacified.
The Newcomers have culture, but a good deal of it probably comes from the Controllers. The Newcomers possess a rudimentary sense of humor, which seems to be because they’ve never encountered comedy. This implies that the Controllers don’t have a sense of humor (they would have joked around the Newcomers, if not with them), which could indicate a literal, possibly machine, mind. This is bolstered by a superficial look at Newcomer writing (this would be by necessity be the language of the Controllers) which looks like an EEG readout. The Newcomers themselves appear to have no name for themselves, likely because their species name probably meant “slave” or something similarly derogatory. They do have personal names, including a first and last. A hive mind probably would have engineered another hive mind, so we can throw out the Controllers as bees.
So where are the Controllers? A slave ship escapes and lands on an alien world and the Controllers ignore it. Early on, I thought that the resemblance between Newcomers and humans would indicate that they shared a genetic past, but if that were true, the Controllers could have just shown up and taken their slaves back. They couldn’t know about earth and the Newcomers on the ship disabled the inevitable tracking device. The farther the Newcomers went, the harder they would be to find. The thing about space is there’s a shitload of it out there.
And what are they? I have a radical hypothesis based on two lines of dialogue. Detective Francisco explains that he learned English in three months. Why would a mining slave race need that kind of facility with language? Only if they served a variety of races. Francisco seems to confirm this when he tells his partner about how unique a people humanity is. This implies that Francisco has encountered any number of other species. It’s likely that the Controllers are either a blanket term for a group of races, or one race in an interstellar alliance.
An interstellar alliance known for engineering slave races and controlling them through addictive drugs that lives far away?
It’s not like you have to think this much about the movie to enjoy it. The mere fact that a question of that magnitude exists without an answer is amazing in today’s antiseptic world of screenwriting. It’s really just a buddy cop film with a twist, but when you get right down to it how can you not love a movie that features a team up between Sonny Corleone and Inigo Montoya?