Clunky, derivative, and sentimental, but also well-intentioned and visually sumptuous, Enemy Mine (1985) is a real mixed bag of ideas, a fusing of themes from the far-superior Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and the equally muddled and obvious Hell in the Pacific (1968). It's hard to completely dislike this sincere plea for racial and religious tolerance, but except for its outstanding art direction the film falls far short of the profound and emotionally powerful crowd-pleaser it clearly wants to be. The shortcomings are reflected in the title: in Barry B. Longyear's original novella it was intended along the lines of "mine enemy" but so cryptically referenced in the movie the producers felt obliged to build the climax around a literal enemy mine. Either way, it's an inapt name for the big science fiction drama Enemy Mine became and does the film a disservice. The poorly designed poster (see below) didn't help convey its strengths, either.
Dennis Quaid, a fine actor, spent much of the 1980s in movies everyone expected to be huge hits but weren't. Besides this he was great as cocky Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff (1983), one of the best films of the decade; and as the micronaut trapped Fantastic Voyage-style in Martin Short's body in the Steven Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-directed Innerspace (1987). In Enemy Mine, Louis Gossett, Jr. (Skin Game, Roots) is memorable as Quaid's Man Friday.
I'd seen bits and pieces of Enemy Mine on television through the years, but that didn't prepare me for Twilight Time's spectacularly good Blu-ray presentation. Licensed from producer-distributor 20th Century-Fox, it's fantastic and on big screen TVs, showing off this unexpectedly epic production well. Extras include a trailer and isolated score track.
The setting is deep space in the late 21st century, where star wars are fought between a lily-white mankind and the Dracs, reptilian humanoids from a distant world. After one particularly fierce dogfight, fighter pilots Willis Davidge (Quaid) and Drac Jeriba Shigan (Gossett) each crash land on Fyrine IV, a strange, volcanic world alien to them both.
As with Hell in the Pacific, the two are initially fearful of one another, having swallowed wholesale their respective species' propaganda about the other. Gradually though they come together, first solely to survive the harsh climate and other dangers, including a monster that's like the Sarlacc sand monster from Return of the Jedi, with tentacles like the Martians in War of the Worlds. Eventually though the need for companionship draws them closer and they become inseparable. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, in which the Crusoe and Friday characters are threatened by humanoid alien miners using the latter's species as slave labor, here Davidge and Jeriba are threatened by human mercenaries that have similarly enslaved helpless Dracs.
By all accounts Enemy Mine was a troubled production from the start. The original director was Richard Loncraine, who completed a large part of the film on location in Iceland and on soundstages in Budapest before Wolfgang Petersen replaced him. Reportedly, even though $9 million had already been spent, the decision was made to scrap all of Loncraine's footage and start from scratch, to reshoot everything and to move the production to studios in Munich. This pushed the final costs, originally budgeted at $17 million, closer to $30 million, though the final negative cost may have been above $40 million.
Though obviously intended as an intimate epic - there are only three major characters - Enemy Mine is extremely lavish, featuring as it does numerous and positively gargantuan soundstage sets representing the planet's varied terrain. (Some still stand as part of a studio tour.) The mostly seamless visual effects make these environments appear bigger still, while scenes set in outer space, particularly aboard a huge space station, are equally epic.
The production design by Rolf Zehetbaur, who designed Petersen's Das Boot and The NeverEnding Story, as well as other films shot in Germany including Cabaret (1972) and The Odessa File (1974), mostly eschews the influences of Star Wars and Alien. Instead, Enemy Mine much more closely resembles the look of so-called Iron Curtain science fiction films from the 1960s, such as Der schweigende Stern (aka First Spaceship on Venus, 1960) and Ikarie XR-1 (aka Voyage to the End of the Universe, 1963). Everything is vividly imaginative yet also believably functional. Enemy Mine is a an excellent example of the visual superiority of mixing big physical sets supplemented with mattes and other opticals to relying on green screens and soulless CGI for everything.
The screenplay is disappointingly conventional, and bad decisions frequently thwart good ideas. The film's one original concept could have been a big, startling surprise for audiences, but Davidge's pointless narration gives away the secret long before it occurs. As with Blade Runner, Quaid's narration must have been an afterthought. It adds nothing, and of the type that tells the audience what it has just watched, or is watching at the moment, making literal what is already obvious to the viewer anyway. That another narrator is heard at the very end, with better-scripted material, is further evidence of this.
The relationship between Davidge and Jeriba likewise is all over the place. I like how Davidge eventually decides to learn Jeriba's language and study his Quran-like holy book, filled with universal truths just like those found on earth. And Jeriba's ship, its supplies, and his mannerisms and language are distinctly alien, strange, and unfamiliar. There's a reason or function behind these things but, unlike the narration, the film doesn't feel obliged to explain everything to its audience.
Conversely, the movie becomes shamefully cute and sentimental at times, undermining Jeriba as an equal while threatening to turn him into something more like a sidekick. In the end, Davidge regards Jeriba's culture, beliefs, and heritage no less than his own, but it's a long and condescending route getting there.
The dialogue often descends into the sophomoric: "You miserable slime!" and "C'mon, Jer, don't you go and quit on me!" come to mind. And the climax, set in that literal enemy mine, is tiresomely manipulative and unnecessary, and though frenetic visually dull. It also plays a lot like the climax of The Mole People (1956) which is not a compliment.
Quaid and Gossett are both fine, the latter adopting a weird jumble of what sound like Jamaican and Hollywood Indian accents, with much effective alien body language. Gossett's special makeup was considered extraordinarily good at the time, though years of Star Trek and other sci-fi shows has lessened its impact. Oddly, Quaid's "mountain man" beards are obvious fakes and the film's spacesuits look cheap in the otherwise lavish sets they inhabit.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 2.35:1 Super35, Enemy Mine looks great in high-def. The beautifully composed widescreen image is shown to full advantage, while the colors are bright and accurate. The detail is extremely impressive, especially in wide angle shots or those with extreme detail, such as during a blizzard sequence, where even individual snowflakes are visible. The (English-only) 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise terrific, and optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Supplements are limited but do include an isolated track of composer Maurice Jarre's effective score, a trailer, and the usual fine liner notes by Julie Kirgo.
Though more ambitious than most big-scale science fiction films of its era, Enemy Mine only partially succeeds, but visually is so impressive it's definitely worth seeing on Blu-ray once. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.