Enemy Mine (1985), Dir. Wolfgang Peterson
Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett Jr. and special effects.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
I've seen this one grace the shelf of many a video rental establishment but the uninspired poster art and the tagline that sounds like it's begging to be backed up by stirring string music have kept me at arm's length. Not to mention, Star Trek: The Next Generation did a very similar plot ("Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!") and I was too young and stupid to realize that Enemy Mine came first.
You've seen this story before. One culture is at war with another, battles are fought, people die and animosity grows. Because you've watched all of your buddies die, racism happens. So when you become stranded in an isolated area with one of your enemies, your first reaction is to fight to the death. Then you call a truce to find food and build shelter. And then you slowly realize that your differences are trivial and that you're not that different after all and you learn to be good friends just in time for the third act to happen where you must make a heroic sacrifice to preserve your friendship and stop the war. Everyone shakes hands. If you're lucky, you get a medal. Yeah, you've seen this story before.
But have you seen it in outer space? No, you haven't. And that's why Enemy Mine exists. So you can see that story in outer space. With Dennis Quaid facing off against, and eventually befriending, Louis Gossett Jr. and his seventeen pounds of latex.
While Enemy Mine is saddled with a "been there, done that, got the 'tolerance is nice' t-shirt" storyline, the science fiction elements actually do manage to add value to the overall experience. It's so easy for the modern human being to look at racism and intolerance, scoff and declare it a ridiculous concept. However, popular culture has taught us to fear smelly, slimy lizard people who like to kill us with lasers, so the transferal of the subject matter puts everything in a new perspective, even though we know from the start that these lizard people are smelly or slimy at heart.
Wolfgang Peterson, fifteen years before he'd kill a boat with water in A Perfect Storm and twenty years before he'd kill an even bigger boat with water in Poseidon, keeps the movie going with a steady hand. We can probably blame him for the alien locations looking like Dagobah by way of The Neverending Story (and looking very much like a set on a soundstage rather than a real, breathing world), but the purely physical, pre-CGI effects aren't too shabby. This is a decent, good looking movie, one that will appeal to the early teen set who haven't seen too many movies yet and don't realize that this story has been done to death.
Enemy Mine opens with one of the worst action sequences I have ever seen. Two groups of piss-poor model spaceships shooting lasers at each other in static camera shots in front of of jaw-droppingly bad matte painting. You get the usual cliches, including the cocky pilot and his young sidekick who can only talk about the woman he loves. Of course, the young sidekick perishes when their spaceship crashes on an alien planet and our hero realizes that the alien ship that shot them down has crashed nearby.
After this interminable opening sequence, things do start to get better (mainly because they really can't get any worse), but the entirety of Enemy Mine operates on my trademarked (not really) "Peaks and Valleys System," meaning that every quality moment must be immediately followed by a moment that will immediately render that quality a moot point. For example, the film's daring, interesting and emotionally driven second act is nullified by a climax that produces new villains out of thin air and then tries to become Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, complete with a mine filled with slaves and a henchmen who falls into a rock grinder.
Yes, there is a mine filled with enemies in Enemy Mine, apparently a detail added by studio heads who felt that audiences would be too stupid to realize that the title was possessive, as in "my enemy."
That kind of stupid studio note may very well be a symptom of the larger disease rotting Enemy Mine at its core, keeping it from being the genuinely good movie that it deserves to be. The entire film feels compromised, like someone who had no business making creative decisions ended up making (or forcing) a great many creative decisions. Why else would a movie about enemies learning to love one another end with a cheesy gun battle? Why else would a movie that emphasizes the emotional and mental malleability of all creatures insist on including a sneering, mustache twirling, tying-babies-to-the-train-tracks-while-kicking-puppies style villain?
Granted, even when reduced to its best elements, I don't think Enemy Mine would ever be a masterpiece, but there's a lot to love. After realizing they have to work together to survive being stranded on a hostile alien world, Willis (Quaid) and Jeriba (Gossett Jr.) form a relationship that starts as openly hostile and ends as close and as warm as friendships can get. Do they learn each others languages way to quickly? Are their values systems way too similar for two completely different species? Is the formation of this friendship a little too simple, a little too quick and none too realistic?
Yes, yep and affirmative. Despite this, the actors bring enough personality to the roles to make the relationship work, a good thing since the entire movie hinges on this. Quaid does his usual thing, but it's Gossett Jr. who really impresses, acting his butt off through pounds and pounds of lizard make-up and creating a sympathetic, strangely relatable character. Most impressive is how he plays Jeriba as a being that is neither male or female and somehow pulls it off without leaning to close to either sex. It's a tricky balancing act, a performance that keeps the film grounded and creates emotional stakes when the film has otherwise not earned them.
How could Enemy Mine have earned my total emotional investment? Honestly, I think Peterson made the same mistake here that James Cameron made with Avatar, sending our protagonist into a wild new world without fully establishing who he is and where he comes from. Enemy Mine opens with an action scene and we're on the alien planet within the first ten minutes. All details are filled in with an opening voice over. We know next-to-nothing about the conflict between the humans and the Dracs and how our characters lived before this ordeal. By not seeing where they start, seeing where they end up is not particularly interesting.
However, Cameron knows a thing or two about world building, creating a universe that makes sense and making it feel real and lived in. I used the phrase "Dagobah by way of The Neverending Story" in the Pre-Viewing section because I thought it sounded clever, but it's actually pretty close to what Peterson gives us here. A lot of dull sets and a lot of dull exteriors, the occasional muppet, a Star Wars knock-off or two. The scenes off-planet lack detail and the scenes on-planet are filled with dull, derivative details, meaning that our characters somewhat engaging friendship must grow against the backdrop of a "dangerous" landscape that is never as dangerous as it should be. I think they get attacked by monsters twice a couple of years.
But it doesn't feel like a couple of years because Peterson fails to truly convey the passage of time and allow us to feel that these characters have been stranded-
Ah, screw it. Peterson knows how to make a solid movie. He's made a handful of films that I actually quite like. I'm going to chalk this up to studio meddling. Moving on.
Enemy Mine's highpoint comes somewhere around the middle, when Jeriba reveals something that completely shifts the narrative, a storytelling decision so strange and so daring, that I had to sit up and take notice. I'm not going to reveal it here, mainly because it's the big reason to watch the movie, but I will say it lends the second half of the film a truly wonderful emotional catalyst. It gives our heroes something new to fight for, a new direction to take their friendship and completely shifts their personal identities and their priorities.
And then everyone started shooting each other in an enemy mine for the big, lame action climax and I lost all interest. And that's before the total non-ending delivers a swift kick to the groin of the viewer. I guess that if audiences aren't smart enough to understand the title, we're not smart enough to appreciate quiet, thought-provoking character concepts in our science fiction.
(Next week may or may not be a motion picture movie film about senior citizens and extra-terrestrials. We shall see.)
A Boy and His Dog
The Thing From Another World