Friday, December 11, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Enemy Mine (1985)

Earlier this week, I reviewed Alien Nation (1988), a Reagan Era film about one man and one alien unexpectedly discovering friendship and brotherhood, despite sitting on opposite sides of a deep divide.

In the case of Graham Baker's film, the divide was caused by the racism and social resentment forged during a kind of "cosmic amnesty" program that quickly integrated Newcomer aliens into modern American society.

Wolfgang Peterson's Enemy Mine (1985) is another Reagan/Cold War Era film about the possibility of brotherhood between man and alien.

In this case, however, the backdrop is war itself; and the model for the film's conflict is clearly World War II, particularly the War in the Pacific fought between the U.S. and Japan.

Though based on Barry B. Longyear's story of the same title, the film version of Enemy Mine actually harks back specifically to a 1968 film from director John Boorman: Hell in the Pacific.

In Hell in the Pacific, Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin played pilots in opposing air forces who crashed on an inhospitable island and who were, over time, forced to accept each other -- and their differences -- in the battle for survival.

Hell in the Pacific's amazing natural photography by Conrad Hall captured the primacy of that difficult island landscape in the blossoming of the friendship between these sworn enemies. There was little dialogue spoken in the film (Mifune spoke only his native Japanese...), and the tension was often made bearable only by what Variety's reviewer called Marvin's "sardonic" lines, "which resemble wisecracks intended for onlookers."

In very precise terms, Enemy Mine strives for the same atmosphere, but does so under the bailiwick of a sci-fi veneer.

Storywise, the tale involves the Bilateral Terran Alliance (think the Allies...) battling in space (think the Pacific...) against the reptilian, stoic Dracs (think the Japanese...).

The pilots crash not on an island, but on the inhospitable planet of Fyrine IV, which is subject to wild seasonal changes, not to mention incessant meteor showers. The Terran pilot, Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) and Jeriba, the Drac (Louis Gossett Jr.) first fight with one another, before eventually joining forces to survive death from above (the meteors), and death from below (in the form of carnivorous sand pit monsters).

Enemy Mine's screenplay also gives Davidge (Dennis Quaid) the same kind of sardonic banter that Marvin excelled with in Hell in the Pacific. From the very shape of that sarcastic language, we learn how Davidge feels about the Drac. He's given to derogatory nick-names (not "gook," but "Toad Face") and seems to view the Drac as inherently inferior, deigning to learn a "few words" of Drac's "crude lingo."

Over time -- and the togetherness of the three years -- Davidge begins to understand the grace, beauty and dignity of the Drac culture. In that regard, Jeriba comments on the fact that humans are "always alone" within themselves and thus somewhat capricious (and passionate...) by nature.

By contrast, the Dracs seem more at peace with themselves, a fact which allows them to give birth without the help of a mate. The Drac are also tied, explicitly, to their ancestors, and Jeriba teaches Davidge how to recite the "Jeriba Line" -- 170 generations of ancestors -- so he can testify for Jeriba's son, Zamis, at the Holy Council on Dracon.

It is never stated anywhere in the film, and this no doubt will make some viewers uncomfortable, but watching Enemy Mine this time around, I couldn't escape the notion that young Zamis is actually the spiritual offspring of Jeriba and Davidge's friendship. Not a literal, biological offspring, but the logical, inevitable result of a friendship as deep and intense as that shared by these two unlike men. On a more epic scale, Zamis becomes the bridge between Drac and Terra, and in the film's beautiful last sequence, we come to learn how the human Davidge literally becomes part of Jeriba's family. This is a beautiful message of peace and brotherhood, especially since it came at the height of the Cold War.

Although The New York Times derided Enemy Mine as a "costly, awful-looking science fiction epic," I disagree. Taking a cue from Hell in the Pacific, I submit that Enemy Mine is a beautifully-realized film, though -- as always -- it is best not to judge by today's standards of special effects. The visuals are as stirring, convincing, impassioned and persuasive as the film's central friendship.

Enemy Mine's very first shot stands as a stark example of this. It gives the audience a dyanmic example of counterpoint.

On the soundtrack, Davidge's voice-over narration informs us that all the nations of the Earth have found peace. But on screen, we actually see the contrary: the next frontier; a war with an alien spacies.

The film opens with a creepy view of a human skeleton in a ruptured space suit -- a futuristic yet resonant image -- and then pulls back to reveal that this corpse drifts in a debris field in the aftermath of a star battle. Again, this shot could be accomplished easily with CGI today, but even for 1985, it remains gorgeous, macabre and powerful. It shows us that even in space, our nature to "fight" that which we don't understand may be our worst enemy.

Later, the film lingers on long shots of lonely, rocky landscapes, as a solitary figure (Davidge), traverses the surface of an inhospitable world. Again, in the spirit of Hell in the Pacific, the landscape of Fyrine IV is almost a character in this particularlyplay, always driving Human and Drac towards a friendship that might never have existed on another world.

Again and again, Peterson provides us shots of Jeriba and Davidge besieged by the natural Fyrine-ian elements: snow, rain and fire. And so we understand that petty differences (over territory) don't play a role in this harsh environment. In the battle for survival, there is no time for politics.

While discussing visuals, it's necessary to make a special note of Chris Walas's make-up, which transforms Gossett Jr. into the reptilian Jeriba.

Whereas some of the mattes and optical composites of Enemy Mine have indeed aged in the intervening quarter-century since the film's theatrical release, the make-up has not.

Jeriba or "Jerry" is on screen for a tremendous amount of the film's running time, and transmits to my eyes as a completely believable being. Simply put this is some of the finest make-up in cinema history, especially given the fact that it is put up to such intense and long-lasting scrutiny. Gossett's performance is also impressive. His Drac is an inquisitive, bird-like thing of trilling, hissing language; cockeyed-looks and a real sense of nobility. There's nothing stock, silly or remotely derivative about the actor's performance. From the moment we first see the Drac (coming up out of a lake, naked...) to his last sequence, giving birth to his son, nothing about Gossett's make-up or performance rings phony in the slightest. I remember there was a lot of talk in 1985 that Gossett should have been nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, but sadly it never happened.

Perhaps the finest visual imagined by Enemy Mine arrives just before the final fade-out. In the film's stirring, awe-inspiring closing-shot, we see Davidge and Zamis standing at the Holy Council on Dracon. A human being -- for the first time in history -- recites a Drac lineage before the gathered peoples of the planet.

This watershed view of a beautiful, water-rich alien world is a truly glorious one. The prominence of the sun in the auburn Drac sky cements the parallel to the Hell in the Pacific template since Japan is known, in some corners, as "the Land of the Rising Sun."

A sun on ascent may also be an efficacious metaphor for the Drac/human relationship: a sign of impending peace between people under the new "light" of understanding.

The closing shot even serves as the perfect visual punctuation for Davidge's personal journey. Before life on Fyrine IV, the callow, All-American pilot had lived under the specter of jingoism and hatred/prjeducide for an "enemy," although he had no personal cause to hate Dracs ("It's funny, but I'd never even seen a Drac...").

By film's end, however, Davidge has been "illuminated" by an understanding of the Drac culture, So much so that he had fought to save Jeriba's son, Zamis, from slavers (fellow humans). He has traveled to this alien homeworld -- the enemy homeworld -- to speak on the boy's behalf. By film's end, Davidge basks in the sunlight of understanding, peace, and even the kind of belonging that Jeriba suggests evades humans.

Visually, Enemy Mine is unimpeachable. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then Enemy Mine achieves whatever greatness it possesses through those gorgeous, inspirational visualizations. In terms of words, and narrative, however, one wishes that Peterson's film had stuck more closely to the film's two central relationships: Davidge and Jerry/Davidge and Zamis, and not gotten bogged down in action-adventure set-piece at a slave ship compound.

Specifically, in the last third of the film, Zamis is captured by snarling, vicious human scavengers (led by the bug-eyed Brion James) and Davidge mounts a rescue operation to save the Drac boy. A film about relationships -- about survival in a harsh wilderness -- is suddenly transformed into a stupid shoot-out: a Hollywoodish stock battle that makes use of the most hackneyed movie cliches.

It is disappointing in the extreme that a movie which has toiled so hard to remind us that every person is more than the sum of stereotypes about their people descends to the easy stereotype of vicious, cruel, violent villains I like the late Brion James and he is always an effective villain, but his savage, wild-eyed, two-dimensional "evil" has no place in a film about shades of gray.

Enemy Mine gets back on track with that beautiful finale at Dracon and in that dynamic, heartbreaking last shot, but I wish the film had heeded its central message and excised the unnecessary material with the silent-movie slavers. The third act of the film could simply have consisted of Davidge and Zamis working together to escape Fyrine; to build a "raft" to space (as in Hell in the Pacific), or something like that. The black hat villains just aren't necessary, and they drag down an imaginatively presented, near-great film of the 1980s.

Enemy Mine is a powerfully-told story about the universal nature of friendship, spectacular in presentation, and acted with authentic heart. The film would likely be remembered as a classic today were it not for the disappointing third act.

8 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:44 PM

    It's nice to see a thoughtful review for this generally overlooked film. 'Enemy Mine' is one of those films that looks much better on the big screen (I saw it back in theaters in '85). I don't agree with the 'Times' review. The film, especially the sets, looked very impressive on the big screen. One thing was distracting. The makeup for the Drac looks rather incomplete around Gosset's mouth (the hole in the face mask seems poorly integrated with the mouth). Maurice Jarre's score is quite beautiful in some of the quieter scenes. Kids in '85 probably weren't familar with the story's similarity to 'Hell in the Pacific', though Galactica 1980's "Return of Starbuck" would come to mind for many sci-fi fans.

    Also, if the film came out today, many would slam it for 'pushing' a politically correct message. Unfortunate.

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  2. Jake Lockley5:01 PM

    There's too many good things to say about this movie. I disagree with you about the last third of the film, I interpret the rescue mission and 2 dimensional bad guys as a reflection on the the shallow perception of the enemy first held by Davidge and Jeriba at the beginning of the film. The nameless faceless enemy is simply objectified, and after Davidge's experiences with Jerry he overcomes them and has to go out in the world and deal with those who are who he used to be. He's fighting himself and the shallowness he used to embrace in good conscience.

    Like the previous commenter I think if the film were released today it would be mired in political correctness probably less about war and more about the acceptance of gay marriage and validity of gays raising children. Not that there aren't good stories to tell involving a post-gender society (or a modern retelling of Hell in the Pacific/Enemy Mine), but it would be difficult to hit it's mark in today's political climate. Zerophilia is a good example of such an idea that ended up failing to live up to it's potential by leaning towards romantic comedy rather than sci-fi drama.

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  3. John, your review is an interesting comparative analysis of Enemy Mine and the great Hell in the Pacific film from 1968. And it's an apt one, I think. That particular theater (my father fought in it) was really quite brutal in its warfare, and I think it made HitP such a thoughtful film with its wary counterpoint to it. I always remember how historian Stephen Ambrose once described the Japanese-American war in WWII:

    "From beginning to end, the Japanese-American war was waged with a barbarism and a racial hatred that was staggering in scope, savage almost beyond belief and catastrophic in consequence."

    Relating it to EM's plot does make a good case for the parallel to HitP, history, and war itself. That opening scene certainly conveys that. IIRC, Enemy Mine's conclusion is more hopeful than Hell in the Pacific's. And that could be related to the passage of time. EM's filmmakers grew up during a period where Japan was always seen as an ally, and not just a former enemy. A very contemplative post, JKM. Thanks for this.

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  4. Very interesting comments, all.

    Anonymous: I totally agree with you about the impressive nature of the film's visuals, and I think that Drac's make-up (especially around the mouth...) looks pretty good in motion; maybe not as good in stills.

    Jake: Wow! You have done a really great job stating your case about the slavers and their efficacy in the story. I have to admit: you have persuaded me with your eloquence and ideas! The notion that Davidge is confronting the equivalent of his earlier, prejudiced self, is one that hadn't occurred to me, but which tracks well and is a legitimate reading of the film. Wow. Thank you for that; I love it when someone gives me the key to re-interpreting a film, and you have done just that. Kudos.

    And Le0pard13: You are absolutely right about the context of the WWII conflict, and that quote by Ambrose is on-the-money. In terms of Enemy Mine, I think you are also right to state that it is a softer or more upbeat comment than Hell in the Pacific. And in Enemy Mine -- if anything -- it is the human, Davidge who is seen as the aggressor more often, not the surrogate for the Japanese, Jeriba.

    Thanks for all your great comments about this fascinating film.

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  5. They had shot parts of it in Iceland before booting off the director and going with Wolfgang Peterson who had a different view of how things should look like, the design for an example.

    So the production was moved to Germany or something like that.

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  6. Anonymous1:47 PM

    I've heard that the reason why the third act has a mine filled with bad guys is because film executives were worried that viewers would spend the entire movie wondering where the enemy mine was.

    So they threw in a mine filled with bad guys. Get it?

    -Darren MacLennan

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  7. Anonymous10:48 AM

    Reagrding the reason of Richard Loncraine's removal from Enemy Mine... I recall reading an interview with, I think, a friend of Loncraine's who alleged he was replaced because he discovered a studio high-up was stealing from the production.
    I'd love to see the Iceland shot version. They built a full size earth fighter on top of a truck chassis for the crash scene which was meant to drive through a trench and come to a halt whereupon Quaid would leap out of the cockpit, in one continuous shot.

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  8. Really enjoyed this movie, especially the end when Dennis Quaid character gets to have his name put in the lineage of his nephew.

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