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Enemy Mine – film review

December 20, 2013


Xenophobia sucks.


Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Screenplay by Edward Khmara. Based on a novella by Barry Longyear. Starring: Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr., Bumper Robinson and Brion James. Year of release: 1985. Running time: 108 mins.

It is the late 21st Century and Earth is engaged in a bitter interstellar war with an     alien race known as the Dracs. Two pilots; a reptilian Drac and a human become marooned on an inhospitable planet and must overcome their mutual hatred of one another in order to survive.

Enemy Mine is a character-driven sci-fi drama; a parable on the need for acceptance of other cultures. It speaks about issues of xenophobia – even more relevant now than than they were back in the day. The Hugo and Nebula Award-winning 1979 novella by Barry Longyear was considered ripe for adaptation as it was essentially     a two-hander character piece which would not necessarily be reliant on extensive     (and expensive) special effects in order to tell its story – which is kind of ironic really considering the amount of effects which ended up in the completed movie. Comparisons have been drawn between the premise of Enemy Mine and the 1968 John Boorman movie Hell In The Pacific, although it is unclear whether or not this film was a particular influence on Barry Longyear when he penned the novella. Another film which has also drawn comparisons to Enemy Mine (the movie) is Byron Haskin’s 1964 Ib Melchior-penned classic space opera Robinson Crusoe On Mars – which shares strikingly similar visuals and stylistic flourishes.

Enemy Mine is a surprisingly cohesive film considering it was beset with production issues from the get-go. The movie’s original director Richard Loncraine (Brimstone And Treacle, The Missionary) was fired after two weeks of location shooting in the wilds of Iceland, following his refusal to cut script pages when producer Stanley O’Toole lost confidence in Loncraine’s ability to shoot such an ambitious picture within the budget they had been allocated. The studio’s response was to shut down production while a replacement director could be found – with Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) fresh from the success of The Neverending Story – stepping in to helm the picture. According to screenwriter Ed Khmara (Ladyhawke), the script underwent a further five rewrites with its page count slashed from 140 pages to just 75 – which is extremely lean to say the least (the general rule regarding the timing of movie screenplays is that each page roughly equates to one minute of screen-time) – the completed film ultimately clocks in at a more substantial and customary 108 minutes.

enemy mine - pond

Eschewing Iceland as a location and opting instead to lens the film almost entirely in the Bavaria Film Studios in his native Germany (with additional location filming in the Canary Islands), Petersen effectively forced a reshoot of all of Loncraine’s footage which took the amount of money wasted on the previous director’s aborted version     up to a sizable $9 million. As well as reshooting all of Loncraine’s material, Petersen also required makeup effects supervisor Chris Walas (Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Gremlins) to do a radical redesign of the Drac makeup which also contributed to cost overruns. According to make-up artist James Cummins; who worked closely with Walas – Petersen never had a clear vision of what he wanted; creating frustration by continually changing his mind and scrapping perfectly reasonable design concepts and completed makeups. Cummins has even gone on record as saying that Walas was so desperate to placate the indecisive Petersen, that he sought advice from a number of people including Steven Spielberg; who bizarrely suggested a kind of automobile hood which opens up in the back of the creature’s head – revealing a series of flashing lights inside (unsurprisingly – this patently ridiculous idea was never implemented). The budget ultimately ballooned out to a hefty $28 million which was considered quite substantial back in the day.

The film features an outstanding performance by Louis Gossett Jr. – as the Drac pilot Jeriba Shigan. And Dennis Quaid is really very good here too, as Earth pilot Willis Davidge. Quaid has appeared in quite a few genre films during his career (The Right Stuff, Dreamscape, Innerspace, Dragonheart, The Day After Tomorrow, Pandorum) – but his performance in Enemy Mine undoubtedly ranks as one of his best – right up there with his role in the remake of the noir classic D.O.A. in 1988.

The progressive thawing of tension between Davidge and Jeri is nicely handled with unbridled hostility giving way to grudging tolerance to uneasy acceptance and finally   a deep mutual respect for one another – a progression peppered with many instances of humor. One such moment comes when Davidge’s first attempt at building a shelter results in collapse and he quotes the line “If at first you don’t succeed – try and try again.” He explains to Jeri it was something said by Mickey Mouse to which Jeri asks in all sincerity “This Mickey Mouse – he is great earth-man teacher?”

enemy mine louis gossett jr

Louis Gossett Jr (winner of the best supporting actor Oscar the year before for An Officer And A Gentleman) gives such an incredibly nuanced performance under heavy prosthetics that it is virtually impossible to see him as anything other than an enormously compassionate, living, breathing alien creature. Dennis Quaid has never been known to shy away from playing flawed and fully-rounded characters – and his role in Enemy Mine is no different. In fact it could be argued Davidge is actually a bit of an asshole to begin with and our sympathies shift towards Jeri at a certain point – before Davidge finally begins to come to terms with his own ingrained prejudice and intolerance and develops compassion for Jeri and his kind (essentially overcoming the wartime propaganda he’s been programmed with, designed to demonize his enemies). And thanks to a surprising twist half way through (which I won’t be revealing here) – Davidge finds himself inadvertently adopting a baby Drac named Zammis (Bumper Robinson); which he has promised his deceased parent to raise     and care for and ultimately return to his own people. By the end, indeed, it appears Davidge has gone native – ultimately becoming a human ambassador to Dracon – thereby effectively ending the war. Aside from the two leads, the only other actor to make an impression is the always dependably creepy Brion James (Blade Runner, Flesh + Blood) making a welcome appearance as a human scumbag slave driver; running a mining operation using captive Dracs as labor.

Interestingly, the initial cut of the film which originally screened to test audiences unfolded in a less than linear fashion – opening with a heavily-bearded Davidge recovering after his ordeal and recounting events in flashback with him returning to Fyrine IV in the third act to rescue Zammis from the clutches of the mining slavers. But for whatever reason (possibly due to audience confusion) it was decided to re-edit the film, so that it now unfolds in a more conventionally linear fashion.

enemy mine planetary  landcsape

Technically, the film holds up remarkably well – although the pacing may be somewhat measured by today’s standards. Maurice Jarre’s music is very annoying     at times – especially when he uses jarring synths during some of the more dramatic moments. The visual effects by ILM are uniformly excellent – although the spaceship designs are a little too derivative of the original Battlestar Galactica. The matte paintings are gorgeous. And the practical creature effects – particularly the multi-eyed trilobite-turtle creatures are well conceived and believable. There is also an amazing attention to detail in the enormous sets depicting the various landscapes of Fyrine IV.

Like all worthwhile sci-fi movies with something to say, Enemy Mine operates on several levels – as an exotic adventure, as a character study which illuminates something about the human condition and as social commentary exploring issues which currently affect us now. It shows us that when presented with cultural differences, it is easier to recognize issues which separate us – than the similarities which connect us and reminds us that we may not be all that different in our beliefs and our truths from those we may perceive as being alien.

Perhaps one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the 80’s – Enemy Mine is only now beginning to be rediscovered by a new generation of fans and lauded as a forgotten classic. It’s just sad to realize that sensation-obsessed studios may never again produce films with a meaningful message like Enemy Mine. For if they did – there’s no doubting the world would be so much better for it.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

  1. Another film I saw at the cinema and which I haven’t seen in many years. I remember I quite enjoyed it at the time, the fx were excellent but the music, yes, grated somewhat (although I remember I bought the soundtrack album on vinyl so it must have made some positive impression on me at the time).

    Its a very simple and predictable story, unfortunately it also made some of its concerns about race etc a bit over-simplistic and (sic) black and white.Bit like how the sixties Star Trek would play out issues of its day in a sci-fi setting. Or how Forbidden Planet transposed Shakespeares The Tempest to an alien world.

    I forgot the great Brion James was in this though.That guy was a joy to watch in everything he did.


    • gregory moss permalink

      Overly simplistic? – Possibly. But I don’t think simplicity is an issue. Does it wear its heart on its sleeve? – Absolutely! But I don’t this is an issue either. 🙂


  2. Excellent review! So glad you wrote about this one – I agree it’s very underrated. I think it’s a great film! You’ve made me want to go watch it again because I haven’t seen it in a very long time. 🙂


    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks tablenine – I’m pleased you like it! I put a lot of effort into these retro reviews and it’s always great to hear they make the movies sound worthwhile. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you do decide to revisit it. 🙂


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