Sunday, January 3, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Enemy Mine (1985)

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.


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