Film Review: Enemy Mine (1985)


Hollywood blockbusters are medium usually not that suitable for conveying important messages about the state of the world. That doesn’t mean that, on occasion, such messages can be found in commercially ambitious films, whether by intent or accident, but such films tend to fail at the box office. One of the more spectacular examples is Enemy Mine, 1985 science fiction epic directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

The film is based on the eponymous novella by Barry Longyear, highly regarded literary work that won Nebula and Hugo Award. The plot begins in 2092, when the humanity managed to put divisions and wars on Earth behind it only found new war after encountering Drac, reptilian race of aliens. Protagonist, played by Dennis Quaid, is Willis “Will” Davidge, Bilateral Terran Alliance fighter pilot who shoots down Drac fighter only to crash land on planet called Fyrin IV. There he realises that the enemy pilot has survived too, but his attempt to kill him fails and Davidge ends as prisoner of a Drac named Jeriba Shigan (played by Louis Gossett, Jr.). As times goes by, both Davidge and Jeriba (or “Jerry” as Davidge calls him) realise that they can tackle lack of food, bad climate and hostile fauna only if they learn to disregard their difference and begin working together. What begins as practical arrangement gradually evolves in genuine friendship. Jeriba and Davidge begin to learn as much as possible about their each other’s language, customs and culture. Their relationship ends when Jeriba, whose species multiplies asexually, dies during childbirth. Davidge takes care of a child named Zammis (played by Bumper Robinson), but new challenge comes with arrival of slave-hunting Scavengers led by Stubbs (played by Brion James).

Basic idea behind this film – mortal enemies forced by circumstances to cooperate for the sake of mutual survival – isn’t new and was used many times before, most notably in classic films like The Forty-First or Hell in the Pacific. Using it in futuristic space setting might have looked ludicrous, but experienced and talented German director Wolfgang Petersen (who has replaced Richard Loncraine in the middle of troubled production) makes it work. This is mostly to good use of large budget, which manifests in great special effects depicting space battles in a way that make them believable even after nearly four decades. Alien world, with scenes shot on Canary Islands locations and Bavarian studios in Munich, is depicted with great deal of detail. Veteran composer Maurice Jarre adds interesting and mostly effective music score.

But the greatest asset of the film is the cast. For most of the film there are only two characters on screen and that requires good acting work. Dennis Quaid provides it, flawlessly transforming his character from arrogant fighter jock and jingoistic maniac into responsible human being, dedicated friend and even more dedicated parent. His interplay with Louis Gossett Jr. is great, despite Oscar-awarded actor being burdened with heavy makeup. Gossett, despite human-centric limitations of his alien character, adds little touches that make Jeriba convincing. One of the techniques is unusual speech pattern, as well as use fictional Drac language which is, by accident or not, based on Russian spoken in reverse.

Good work Petersen and the rest of the crew have done for most of the film is nearly ruined by the last third, which looks like someone has tried to artificially add action to simple and natural survival story. This is actually what happened, because producers insisted that at least one scene must take part in mine, because the title could be interpreted as such. That led to mine being 19th Century-style operation that relies on slave labour instead of futuristic technology. The result is anachronistic and unconvincing, and the actual finale looks utterly rushed. The general impression is, however, rescued by film’s message, at least if the film is seen through the prism of Cold War which was near its zenith. Enemy Mine preached abandoning conflict and embracing cooperation and the film authors, consciously or unconsciously, hoped that USA and USSSR would ultimately follow example of its fictional protagonists and find the way to share planet together. Enemy Mine, sadly, sank at the box office and became one of the more obscure pieces of 1980s Hollywood science fiction, but its message appears to be relevant for the world today.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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I really like this movie. I watched it when I was a kid.