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Enemy Mine

Enemy Mine

By Arpad Lukacs • June 26th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
20th Century Fox

Original release: December 20th, 1985
Running time: 110 minutes

Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Writers: Edward Khmara, Barry B. Longyear

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett, Jr., Brion James, Bumper Robinson

Enemy Mine

Based on my own experience of seeing Enemy Mine at around the age of ten, I’d say that this is a movie that all kids should watch. Although there are many films that were designed to carry a positive message for the younger generation, educational value has a particularly strong impact when our inherent prejudices are proven wrong. Interestingly, the film’s PG-13 rating suggests that it wasn’t made specifically for children like ET or The Never Ending Story, but Enemy Mine too is a story of friendship and watching it at such a young age left me with an especially vivid memory.

The reason behind this probably has to do with the fact that I changed a little bit while watching Enemy Mine. It starts off as a quite unremarkable science fiction film with humanity being at war with an alien race in the future, but after a space battle in the film’s opening, the story quickly settles on the surface of a planet where pilot Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) crash lands after his spacecraft is damaged. After having to eject during the same incident, the alien pilot is also forced to land, which makes the two of them stranded and trapped in desolate world uninhabited by intelligent life.

Davidge remains intent on killing his enemy under these new circumstances, but soon, he’ll have no choice but to learn that cooperation gives him a better chance of survival. The alien is from a race called Drac and the make-up design of the creature was terrifying and revolting to the kid that I was when watching the film for the first time. This is a key ingredient in the film’s overall impact; the creators didn’t try to make this reptilian humanoid cute or lovable for effect.

Enemy Mine

I cannot overstate how important this is when character design of this kind is often used to generate sympathy in the audience without having to do too much thinking. When we look closer at the indigenous species Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) for instance, we’ll notice the wide and innocent “Disney-eyes” coupled with features borrowed from our beloved domestic cats and dogs. We can’t help but respond to character design in science fiction and fantasy based on our experiences with animals that we know in real life; filmmakers know this of course and this is why so many villainous aliens have a reptilian look reminiscent of crocodiles and venomous snakes. The antagonist of Predator (1987) and the Xenomorphs of the Alien franchise look really scary while the Na’vi in Avatar and Chewbacca in Star Wars look friendly and lovable because their design is aimed at helping the audience understand their role in the story.

This is where Enemy Mine is somewhat more mature and complicated. This less “digestible” approach probably contributed to the film’s struggling upon release, but I was glued to the screen nevertheless when I first started to get to know the creature that looked so frightening upon first glance. The Drac’s name is Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and an uneasy relationship is born between him and Davidge out of necessity of the circumstances. Davidson insists on keep using Enemy Minederogatory racist terms he learned at home like “toad-face” and “frog” when addressing his new ally, but the more they learn about each other the less hostile they become. In the process of ensuring their survival, they learn each other’s languages and Davidge learns about a great Drac spiritual teacher, while he teaches Jeriba – or Jerry as he calls him – about Mickey Mouse.

Going back to the make-up design of Jerry, there is something that stood out for me in the film. A recurring disagreement between Jerry and Davidge is their opposing views on which one of them is the “ugly one”. This was an eye-opening experience to me as a child; I was astonished to hear this reptilian creature claiming that Davidge has a “very ugly head” compared to a Drac. I began to understand that different perspectives can exist depending on cultural background and that my opinion about what is and isn’t ugly was not set in stone. Along with this surprising new point of view, the longer I watched the film the more accustomed I grew to Jerry’s appearance. Of course, I could still see the difference between human and Drac, but my ‘perception’ of that difference became less and less significant as the story progressed.

As signs of a friendship begin to show, the only time they still get angry at each other is when the conversation turns political about who started the war and who has territorial rights in space. But none of that really matters anymore. Around the same time Davidge discovers that a group of human miners called the “Scavengers” frequently visit the planet and use Dracs as slave labour, it also turns out that Jerry’s race doesn’t have different genders and pregnancy just happens to Dracs. During a very cold winter, Jerry dies in childbirth, leaving Davidge to raise the little Drac named Zammis (Bumper Robinson) as his own child.

The following events involving the Scavengers further enforced the idea in my young mind that “the other” is frightening only until I try to understand perspectives differing from my own. Enemy Mine has a unique ability to explore tolerance and compassion through its imperfect protagonist. Davidge is prejudiced himself and we are invited to identify with him along with his flaws. His character arch is therefore a learning curve for the audience, we transform with Davidge and the transformation is a drastic one that’s born out of getting to know the other side. While Enemy Mine is an entertaining sci-fi with a satisfyingly action packed ending with Davidge having to protect his adopted child from the Scavengers, science fiction here is wrapped around a story of unique kinship that resonates in a timeless manner.

Enemy Mine

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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