Fox // 1985 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 23rd, 2001
"I don't love you and you don't love me. But we're stranded here."
Who is an enemy, and who is a friend? Ostensibly, that is the question presented by Enemy Mine, Wolfgang Petersen's entry into American action films (after his children's picture The NeverEnding Story). Unfortunately, the real question is, how does a film with so much promise go so terribly wrong?
In the 21st century, mankind has united and conquered the stars in gleaming silvery spaceships. The goal: to colonize every world within reach. But someone is already out there -- the Dracon -- and they also want colony worlds. A fierce war between humans and this hermaphroditic reptilian race begins.
When Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) crashes after a tense dogfight, he finds the Drac enemy pilot (Louis Gossett, Jr.) alive and well. After some brief squabbling, the two quickly become friends, banding together to fight the environment rather than one another. Davidge and Jerry live happily, only threatened occasionally by meteor showers and scavenging ships. Then Jerry becomes pregnant.
When I saw Enemy Mine in the theater in 1985, I was impressed at the time with its retro production design, harkening back to the early '60s. Crisp white uniforms with oversized helmets, shining spaceships with big fins -- the producers had clearly tried to avoid the "lived-in" look most science-fiction technology was sporting in the 1980s (thanks to movies like Star Wars and Alien) in favor of the great old era of American space imperialism. Remember those days? Gleaming chrome and smiling white male heroes with square jaws were all we needed to teach those Commies -- I mean, slimy space aliens trying to kidnap our women -- a thing or two about Yankee ingenuity.
Oddly, Barry Longyear wrote the short story "Enemy Mine" (part of a whole series on the Dracon War) in 1979, long after that era had passed, but well into the age of "aliens are really our friends" stories (like E.T. and Close Encounters). His work takes great pains to develop the Drac as a culture, treating it with respect and care -- something virtually none of the films we will name in this review manage to do. But his work is largely the product of a particular era in American popular culture (and will likely see a resurgence when the pendulum swings back that way). We got along with aliens in those days; they would not become our enemy again until well into the Reagan/Bush era (culminating of course in Independence Day, which is really just a remake of the 1950s invasion films like Earth Versus The Flying Saucers). Played right, a "retro-future" look at America's colonial heyday becomes a sharp political and ethical critique. Played badly, it becomes camp.
The telling moment is when Jerry the Drac tells his best friend Davidge that he is pregnant. The scene is uncomfortably silly. Davidge returns from a trip having found evidence of human scavengers who traffic in Drac slaves, but before he can tell Jerry, he notices that glowing feminine smile so prevalent in old movies (and yes, Jerry will sew a cute little baby dress in the next scene, so brace yourself for it). Davidge flusters a bit, denying that the baby is his (which we already know, but repeating the point just reinforces the cliché). But what we see here is very familiar: husband comes home from a long trip to find his wife nesting in anticipation of a little bundle of joy. The audience titters nervously, not laughing with the melodrama, but at it.
If the movie visually references early '60s science-fiction, the plot itself references '70s popular culture: bits of domestic situation comedy (Davidge and Jerry keeping house), soap opera melodrama (the weepy death of Jerry in childbirth, including the requisite "Don't die on me" speech), and buddy movie morality (Jerry saves Davidge and diverts sentiment by making the required crack about missing his ugly face). The screenplay of Enemy Mine (by Edward Khmara) seems to aggressively search out clichés to pad its running time.
The film does seem to find its footing in the relationship between Davidge and his foster child Zammis (Bumper Robinson) in the last 40 minutes. Here the movie has a potential center. In fact, Longyear's original tale really only uses the "buddy alien" plot device to set up a much more interesting examination of multi-ethnic family relationships. How Davidge and Zammis deal with the boy's identity crisis, and their attempts to deal with prejudice after their return to "civilization," are the real highlights of Longyear's work. In the film version, much of this is glossed over: we get about 5 minutes of character development before the plot must kick back into gear for the climax. The climax itself, involving a battle against slave-owning miners (led by Brion James, basking in his post-Blade Runner success), is full of more plot holes than one can possibly imagine. Davidge is shot, only to spontaneous spring to life days later (don't even ask how his body got back to the space station), is suspected of treason for about six seconds, then goes back on flight duty, so that he can steal a spaceship a couple of minutes later! And the happy ending (which features a friendly anonymous narrator spontaneously replacing Davidge's often redundant narration) seems to completely forget that a war is on!
While I am on a roll, let me take a moment to mention ILM's contributions to the film. Although the production design is interesting, the special effects to not show it off effectively. Miniatures are too obvious, and the effects compositing is weak. I know the film was made in 1985, but ILM was capable of much better effects work at the time (look at Return of the Jedi, made two years previous). However, praise must be given to Chris Walas' makeup effects for the film. Everything from the Drac designs to simple burn effects is well done and quite realistic. The following year, he would earn a well-justified Oscar for Cronenberg's The Fly.
In spite of the script, the performances hold up quite well. Louis Gossett, Jr. finally puts his Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman to good use (well, better use than he puts it in the Iron Eagle movies), developing subtle mannerisms and convincing line readings for his alien language, even under heavy makeup. While Dennis Quaid occasionally plays Davidge broadly in the first half of the film, his work with Bumper Robinson (surprisingly effective in a part usually made cloying and cutesy by bad child actors) avoids obvious sentimentality.
Fox presents Enemy Mine with an anamorphic transfer, although I must say that the print looks a bit dark in some scenes. Maurice Jarre's score is mixed low in most scenes, which is probably a good idea, since its synthesizers sounds rather dated. There are no noticeable defects in the print or the audio. Fox offers the soundtrack in either 4.0 or 2.0, with an additional French audio track. Other than that, extras are pretty sparse. The "production photos" gallery consists of three pictures. The trailer is full-screen and very faded (but uses some wonderful Philip Glass music instead of Jarre's score). Fox does include 5 trailers in their "Fox Flix" section. Oddly, most of the movies are about "bad" aliens (Aliens, Alien Nation -- both full frame and very faded -- Independence Day, and Zardoz), while only one (The Abyss) is about friendly aliens. The Zardoz trailer is great to watch, like a cinematic acid trip free of any logic (much like the actual film). In a weird way, this trailer is the best thing on the disc.
Is Enemy Mine meant to be silly? Probably not. The rest of Wolfgang Petersen's films do not show much of propensity for satire (and no jokes about Germans not being good at comedy). He is at his best with thrillers avoid sentimentality (Das Boot of course, as well as his American "political" action films In the Line of Fire, Outbreak, and Air Force One). He is at his weakest when he tries to get warm and fuzzy.
I would love to say that the "ethical message" of the film makes it all worthwhile, but the movie takes too long to get to the real ethical dilemma (Zammis' multi-ethnicity) and too little time dealing with it when it gets there. Instead, too much attention is diverted to the set-up: the bonding between Davidge and Jerry, which is only an ethical "dilemma" on the most superficial level. Too many clichés and plot holes get in the way in the meantime.
Enemy Mine, on first glance, presents a supposed problem for ethical philosophy: how do we deal with an alien other. This in itself is a fundamental issue, indeed the very definition, of ethics. How do I, as a subject in the world, relate to other subjects in the world? One approach is to make those other subjects like me, so that we are all the same: one big, happy subject. Another approach is to understand that another subject is by its very nature different. That difference is essential. I have discussed some of the implications of this in previous "Deep Focus" columns, and shortly we will put together some of these ideas and pin down a more careful definition of ethical philosophy.
At times, Enemy Mine seems at odds with itself. The first half presents the former approach to ethics: Davidge and Jerry become friends based on human similarities (when we discover that Jerry's religion and culture are "just like ours," and even his pregnancy echoes human domestic clichés). The final act of the film hints at a more complex problem: how the fusion of two different cultures might deal with communication across the boundaries of two alien subjectivities. Unfortunately, such an intriguing problem is buried in the sandtrap of Enemy Mine, awaiting better films to come and dig it out.
This court feels betrayed and abandoned by a film that promised so much and delivered so little. Screenwriter Edward Khmara is sentenced to hard labor on the nearest prison planet. ILM is also sentenced there until they pay off their karmic debt (although with some of their other mid-'80s films, like Howard the Duck, that could take a long time). The rest of the cast and crew are to be pitied but not punished: they did their best with material unworthy of their talents.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Production Photos
* Theatrical Trailer
* Fox Flix (trailers)