– Summary –
Director : Wolfgang Petersen
Year Of Release : 1985
Principal Cast : Dennis Quaid, Lou Gossett Jr, Brion James, Bumper Robinson, Carolyn McCormick, Richard Marcus.
Approx Running Time : 108 Minutes
Synopsis: Two arch enemies – a human and an alien – are stranded together on an inhospitable world, and during their enforced internment they must work together to survive. Through their harrowing ordeal, they form a unique and life changing bond, a bond that transcends their predisposition towards enmity.
What we think : As a kid, I thought this film was astonishing – terrific, to say the least – and now, having seen this film for the first time in some twenty five years, I’m still an ardent fan. Time hasn’t been kind to the films visuals, but then again, one could argue the “time capsule” accomplishment of Petersen’s is repeated throughout effects films down the years; as a story, however, Enemy Mine is as powerful and pertinent now as it was upon release. If you ever get a chance, watch this film, and bask in the haunting performances of both Quaid and Gossett Jr, neither of whom shy away from the potency of the social commentary present within the story.
“Where would you be without me?”
I’ve tried to remain as impartial in this review as I possibly can, but the hold Enemy Mine has over me does, I fear, threaten to overwhelm my critique with a verbosity of positive eloquence that might mask any negativeness I find as I go. The reason for my restraint is that this film – alongside The Last Starfighter and Labyrinth – are the Holy Trinity of my Childhood Film Education: Enemy Mine was recorded off free-to-air TV in about 1987 and replayed over, over, and over again on a dodgy old VHS tape until the tape jammed, shredded, and became unplayable. When it came out in 1985, I was ten years old, and never saw it in the cinema. I had to wait some two or three years (memory fail…. I was eleven, guys!) to eventually see this one on television, and I was entranced. It was a far cry from the old episodes of Doctor Who that had, until then, captured my imagination, and Enemy Mine was the first film to really, really transport me to outer space where life could be tough (this wasn’t Star Wars or Star Trek, no sir!) and death was a near-certainty. Its classic story of two enemies having to come together to survive wasn’t a new one, but what Petersen did (that fascinated me as a youngster) was set it off-world, and heighten the inhospitable environment to ensure it became something of a survival-thriller as well as a social commentary on tolerance and understanding. Enemy Mine isn’t a revelation of a film, nor is it a definitive classic in the vein of Star Wars, but it is a classic of 80’s cinema, and it is most assuredly one of my all-time favorite films. With that in mind, let’s have a wander through my rose-tinted glasses to see how the film holds up after nearly three decades.
Not too far into the future, humanity has begun exploring the stars of our galaxy, only to run into trouble – a territorial race of aliens, known as the Dracs, have disputed man’s claim to a large swathe of resources, leading to war. One man, Willis “Will” Davidge (Dennis Quaid) is engaged in a dogfight with several Drac attacks hips, when he’s shot down on a desolate and inhospitable planet, leaving his co-pilot dead and almost no chance of rescue. Also stranded on the planet is the Drac he shot down, a creature he sees only as an enemy. However, when he tries to kill the Drac (Lou Gossett Jr), the alien saves his life, resulting in a tense stand-off between the two. As they slowly come to accept the fact that neither of them will be rescued, they form an alliance – tempestuous as it is – to survive, and as the days turn to months and they begin to communicate with each other, they begin to find within themselves an understanding, if not an appreciation, of each other’s culture. The Drac, though, is hiding a secret that will force Davidge to do the near-unthinkable: to track down one of the Drac creatures in order to save it from the cruelty and horror of man’s evil.
While it may not look like it now, Enemy Mine had a fairly problematic production. 20th Century Fox changed management midway through early filming, while original project director, Richard Loncraine, was shown the door when his vision wasn’t considered “up to par” by the new studio owners. When new director Wolfgang Petersen was brought on board, he effectively started from scratch – production moved from the vast array of locations they’d been filming at for nearly six weeks in Iceland and Budapest, to Petersen’s home turf, Bavaria Studios in Munich. Not only that, but a lot of the character design for the alien Drac was redesigned from the ground up, resulting in a further 5 months of stalled pre-production. You’d think with the constant delays, the film’s final result might feel cobbled together or disjointed, but in this regard, you’d be wrong. Enemy Mine is a triumph of design, film-making craft and an elegant story delivered in a way that overcomes technological limitations and decades of sci-fi television. It’s not exactly a new story, nor would you consider it to be the best example of the one it ultimately tells, but Petersen’s keen eye and awe-struck sensibility ensure Enemy Mine remains an undiscovered gem. The film’s been out of print in the digital format (to the point where I don’t think it was ever in print, to be honest!) so a lot of new film fans might never have seen it, especially in its widescreen format. Myself, I’d only ever watched this film in the pan/scan format on late 80’s television as a kid, so not even I had been given the opportunity to relay how magnificent this film is.
And it is magnificent. The two central leads, Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett Jr, are superb in their respective roles as the human and the alien – a futuristic Robinson Cruse and his Man Friday, as it were – with Gossett Jr in particular a standout as Jerry (a nickname supplied by Davidge thanks to his full name, Jeriba Shigan), the reptilian alien Quaid is marooned with. Gossett Jr is nearly unrecognizable as Jerry, hidden beneath a truly stunning alien prosthetic, although unlike many prosthetics of the era never hides Gossett Jr’s performance behind the latex, allowing a full range of emotion to come to the screen. Gossett’s mannerisms and behavioral portrayal of Jerry is, in my opinion, an example of an acting masterclass; he inhabits the role completely and morphs fully into the character, and I would gladly state on the record that I don’t think he’s ever done better as an actor. Quaid’s role, while larger, isn’t as nuanced, not because of Quaid’s ability to convey the role, but rather the script’s somewhat clunky handling of his character’s transition from Good Old Boy American gung-ho soldier, to empathetic, emotionally coherent human being; if there’s a weakness to the film’s story, it’s probably this. That said, Quaid’s earnest portrayal of Davidge and his struggle to overcome a lifetime of prejudice is affecting, albeit join-the-dots simplistic.
Bit roles to Bumper Robinson, as a young Drac, Zammis, eternal creepy Bad Guy Brion James (yes, he who played almost exactly the same role in Blade Runner) and token parts to Catherine McCormick and Richard Marcus add heft to a rather thin casting roster, fleshing out the Real World of the film in ways that serve to heighten the survivalist mentality the film projects for much of its running time. Robinson in particular is effortlessly believable in his role, although there are glimpses of him being told how to emote and act – it’s only with more cynical eyes that I notice this now, because as a kid I couldn’t really tell. The secondary cast – Robinson aside – merely serve as plot mechanisms rather than actual characters, leaving Petersen plenty of time to spend with Quaid and Gossett Jr as their arc progressed.
One thing that particularly stood out to me as I revisited the Blu-Ray release of this film, is just how well it stands up even after all these years. Sure, the obvious technical limitations of green-screen and rotoscoping from the mid-80’s to now might give modern audiences cause to snicker, but from an actual storytelling perspective, and from a genuine, legitimate emotional ride slant, Enemy Mine remains evocative and pertinent. There’s plenty to say in the film – it’s a Message Movie of the highest order – although Petersen doesn’t hammer home what he needs to say; instead, he lets the simple characters he’s planted in this other-worldy scenario grow on his audience, grow and change before them, and take them on a journey. Somehow, in light of the intervening two decades since I last saw this, the film had remained fresh and invigorating as if I’d never seen it before. Most films you watch as a child lose something when you have another look as an adult, with the fog of memory serving to accentuate the positives and disavow the negatives you might have thought of as a a kid – Enemy Mine stands as a film that, even if some obviously PG-friendly elements, such as burping, slurping and bullet ricochets date its production values and sense of humor, retains the core values and entertainment dynamics that I saw as a child, and even now appreciate all the more.
Petersen’s direction is, as with The Neverending Story, filled with a sense of wonder and awe at this world he’s created, although unlike that child’s fantasy film, here there’s a tinge of sadness and loss of innocence. While the film is safe for the young teen crowd (beware though, at one point Davidge rips into the carcass of a body to remove an infant, and just the concept of that is skin-crawling) there’s an overt adult sensibility to the underlying narrative themes. Themes of tolerance, of overcoming prejudice, of being a better person in the face of overwhelming loss; kids might not get the movie on face value, but the lessons learned (probably as I did) will stay with them for a lifetime. Thankfully, Petersen never makes his messages preachy here, although the more cynical might beg to disagree. He keeps the focus primarily on Davidge and Jerry, and later with Zammis, eschewing overtly trying to say “Here’s the part where I tell you what to think” and lets us draw our own conclusions. If I was drawn into a debate about it, I’d say both Enemy Mine and The Neverending Story are Peterson’s most pure films as a storyteller; Hollywood buffoonery such as Air Force One and The Perfect Storm only serve to show how the studio system drains true creativity and true storytelling away to leave basic, plot-by-numbers cinema.
If you’re a young film fan, and haven’t ever heard of Enemy Mine, take heed: this film is solidly mounted, well written (for the most part) and generally well acted by the central leads. Certain anachronistic moments might tend to pull you from the experience, and Maurice Jarre’s score is apropos of the mid-80’s and now sounds somewhat dated, but the complexity of the characters is the driving force behind this film’s believable, often disarming visage. There’s a sense of truth to the film, an exposition of human failings that’s highlighted by Gossett Jr’s nuanced and at-times powerful performance as Jerry, the marooned alien. It’s hard to quantify, but I think it’s true. Enemy Mine isn’t a blockbuster in the vein of Star Wars – nor was it ever intended to be; instead, it’s a character-driven piece that just happens to occur in the future on another planet. I’m pleased to say that the years have indeed been kind to Enemy Mine, so if you’re ever in the position to watch – or rewatch – this incredibly poignant film, do so with my heartiest recommendations.
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