How the wonder we call “memory” betrays us all! If you’ve thought about this movie since it came out, you’ll probably remember two things – Dennis Quaid and Alien Louis Gossett Jr in a cave; and Dennis looking after the alien’s baby. While I think I know the reason the rest of the movie slipped out of my head – it wasn’t as good as those bits – it’s still got plenty to recommend it.
I wish an alternate title for this had been “Space Racist”. Humanity are definitely the bad guys here – after apparently solving all their problems on Earth (which, on a show like Star Trek, meant they’d conquered some of their own worst instincts and had developed a post-money economy; here it means basically nothing) they went out in the Galaxy to mine and met the Drac. They’re lizard-esque aliens and seemed reasonably chilled out until we decided we wanted the resource-rich planets they’d colonised and went to war.
You may have already noticed one or two parallels to the way “the white man” has treated both blacks and Native Americans, and to say it’s heavy-handed in its anti-racist message is a bit of an understatement. Willis (Quaid) is full of boredom and hatred for the Drac, and when a squadron of their ships show up, he’s so determined to kill them that he ends up forcing a Drac ship to crash land on a deserted planet, shortly before doing the same himself and killing the rest of his crew. Gossett is Jeriba, the sole surviving Drac pilot, and the majority of the movie is the relationship between the two men, which starts off super-hostile but obviously thaws to a state of friendship, with Willis learning the Drac language (and vice versa) and also studying what amounts to their holy book, full of vaguely Buddhist-sounding aphorisms.
The bit everyone remembers, and the bit that’s quite good, ends surprisingly early and the rest of it is Willis raising Zammis (Jeriba’s child, they’re a single-sex species), and matters proceeding. The problem is, “Robinson Crusoe, if Crusoe had to raise Man Friday’s baby” is not spectacularly exciting territory for a big sci-fi adventure.
The special effects are amazing, the way they made Gossett’s mask so he could emote is a minor miracle, and the planet (most of it built from scratch in a German studio) looks fantastic – it’s believably alien, in a way most sci-fi films just don’t bother with. Quaid and Gossett are both great too, so good that you can hand-wave away the numerous plot holes and other oddities. Quaid goes from being “killed” by some scavengers to just being back on his own mother-ship, with zero explanation given; also, the scavengers have Drac slaves, and I think taking slaves across the universe is a waste of resources. Invest in automated mining equipment, you guys! It’s a film which has a message it takes half the movie to get across, then turns into a sort of space-opera gunfight / fistfight finale, like they realised that a sci-fi movie about ideas and people learning to adapt and overcome their strongest beliefs wasn’t going to get the multiplex crowd going.
“Enemy Mine” was an odd production, with Wolfgang Petersen replacing the original director after millions of dollars of unusable footage had already been filmed. They started again, moving production to Germany to Petersen’s favourite studio and redesigning the planet and Gossett’s mask. It cost somewhere near $40 million to make and made back around a third of that – it probably recouped a chunk more in the days of home video, but the misleading advertising campaign didn’t help, being called one of the worst ever by a former executive. In a year that gave us “Back To The Future”, “Lifeforce”, “Re-Animator”, “The Quiet Earth”, “Brazil” and “Trancers” (okay, I was stretching on the last one), “Enemy Mine” was lost in the shuffle. Due to its own unwillingness to really commit to one of its central ideas, and its title which is barely relevant, if it’s remembered at all it’s by fools like me who think it’s about the two of them living in a cave…hey, why didn’t they just move into the cave right away, rather than building a stupid hut out of crab-shells first? Sorry, movie.
Rating: thumbs in the middle