Saturday, December 08, 2018

Yours, Enemy Mine, and Ours

Enemy Mine tells the heartwarming story of how Dennis Quaid overcomes space racism in either the not-too-distant or incredibly distant future. I'm not sure exactly, and the film isn't too big on specifics of chronology. The movie is truly an artifact of its time, that time being the 1980s. In fact, if one were to describe the genre of Enemy Mine, it would be "The 1980s", with "drama," and "science fiction" close second- and third-place finishers.  It was the kind of one-shot, high-concept sci-fi story that wouldn't get made today without studio interference insisting on a shared universe or a movie trilogy or decent editing.

I'm not going to argue that Enemy Mine is some masterwork of cinema, though. I love this film dearly, but by god, there are a lot of elements in terms of editing, writing, and special effects that are either glaringly, objectively bad, or have not aged well at all. Especially considering that the director, Wolfgang Petersen, had just come off of a career high with the critically acclaimed submarine war drama Das Boot, something just doesn't add up. I mean, this is the guy who is also known for other big budget films like Air Force One and Troy that were well-made films.

I suppose that to a child of the '80s like myself, part of the charm of films like Enemy Mine are the imperfections. It's that sincerity of film making that marks the fine line between cheesy and charming (campy?) and which keeps Enemy Mine from diving right off the edge. And it is a fine line. I have the sneaking suspicion that in the hands of anyone director besides Wolfgang Petersen and the stars, Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., it might have been a colossal failure on all fronts, unsalvageable by even the most liberal application of nostalgia.

Perhaps what makes Enemy Mine work so well is also that at the core of its narrative is a very simple message of love and acceptance. The story is set in the future where humankind has finally made the journey to the stars, only to encounter another sapient, space-fairing species, the Drac, who are reptilian in nature as opposed to mammalian. As can be expected based on centuries of human history, we promptly go to war with them over something as trivial as territorial disputes, because apparently the vastness of the universe still doesn't contain abundant-enough resources that we can't find reasons to fight over them.

The main plot follows military fighter pilot Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) becoming stranded with an enemy Drac pilot, Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett, Jr.), cut off from civilization with no ability to communicate with the outside world, and cut off from any means of getting airborne/spaceborne again. After a brief period of actively trying to kill each other, they realize that due to the harsh and inhospitable new land they find themselves in, they will have to work together if there's any hope of either of them surviving.

That wasn't a costume. Dennis Quaid can grow a beard
overnight through sheer force of will.
Underneath the sci-fi trappings, it's a simple story of overcoming hatred (both institutional and personal) and bigotry. Except, it's not so simple. One of the things I appreciate more now watching Enemy Mine as an adult is exactly how long it takes for Davidge and Jeriba to really overcome their hatred, even after they've already begun a unilateral cooperation in terms of building shelter, finding food, gathering resources, etc. There wasn't just a quick montage of two one-time enemies working together and learning that, hey, they're not so different after all, and breaking into a powerful duet about the power of friendship, not that much different than the exact Disney musical number you're thinking of right now.

Even after learning to cooperate with each other, the pair still butt heads and get caught up with outbursts of aggression both verbal and physical that, at times, threaten their very survival. Overcoming the prejudices and hatred that they had been programmed to feel for each other for so long wasn't a simple matter of being forced to live alongside each other. It took time to break down those barriers, and it was a long and painful process. There is, unfortunately, no simple cure for bigotry. As George Harrison might put it, "It's gonna take time / A whole lot of precious time." Breaking down those barriers and learning to see your enemy through the same lens that you view your allies--with empathy, respect, and dignity--is a very difficult and sometimes very long process.

Having this emotional core at the heart of Enemy Mine really holds the film together, man. It also makes a lot of sense seeing as Petersen was a prominent German director born in 1941, who would have had a real sense of the history associated with that heritage and the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust. The healing process for the world was a long and arduous one. But the healing process is just that: a process.

In fact it isn't even until the very end, when Jeriba, who Davidge comes to affectionately refer to as Jerry, dies due to complications from childbirth that Davidge really realizes how much they had grown to depend on and even love each other. (Jeriba appears to be male, but apparently the Drac reproduce asexually, which doesn't sound like nearly as much fun as the sexy-fun-time option that evolution bestowed upon human beings and our other primate cousins.)

So Davidge is left to raise Jeriba's son Zammis by himself, stranded on a (mostly) uninhabited planet in the most unforgiving of environments. This further puts Davidge in the position of having to pass on what he learned of Drac culture, which he thankfully had plenty of time to study from a small (very literally tiny) cultural/religious text that Jeriba had kept with him since the original crash and passed on to Davidge. This is another important step in Davidge's journey as he feels obligated to pass on the Drac teachings, which, of course, requires them to immerse himself in them as well.

Eventually, Davidge discovers that the planet that he and Zammis are stranded on is not entirely devoid of other people. A small group of interplanetary miners with questionable ethical standards is apparently using a slave labour force of Dracs to dig for valuable space minerals. Zammis, curious about his own people, goes in for a closer look and in the process A) becomes enslaved and B) gets Dennis Quaid shot.

Of course, it takes more than a mere bullet to stop Dennis Quaid. Davidge is eventually rescued and reinstated back into the military to go and kill some more Dracs. Instead, he follows his heart to go back and free Zammis and the other Drac from the slavers, showcase his ass-kicking skills, and demonstrate to the galaxy how wrong racism all is.

Perhaps what stuck with me most that I wasn't able to articulate when I was younger, was how long it took for Davidge to overcome his bigotry. The entire subtext of overcoming bigotry was probably mostly lost on me as a child, but I always remember wondering why they didn't immediately start working together to survive when they were stranded. As an uninvested third party, it obviously made sense to work together to ensure your own survival. I think it's because the typical Hollywood trope is to have two people who hate each other come to some climax where somebody gives some dramatic speech or makes some grand gesture, and there's a clear turning point. Past this point, even if the previously antagonistic characters don't become best friends, there's a certain point of no return in terms of character development. There's typically a clear, epiphanic moment where the characters come to a clear realization.

Thank god I got trapped with the mentally stable Quaid brother.
Enemy Mine doesn't take this easy path. And I think that's one of the reasons I could never quite shake this film's hold over me. As an adult, now a little wiser and a little more knowledgeable about the world, and about the history of said world, Enemy Mine is so compelling because it mirrors or reveals an essential truth about human existence. In real life, there isn't some magic panacea for bigotry and prejudice and hatred. Fostering acceptance among and empathizing with other people from all walks of life takes a lot of energy and effort. Often, nothing is ever "solved" in the real world, and especially not with a single dramatic speech (except maybe one from Jimmy Stewart). Like most things, understanding and cooperation with fellow human beings is a process. It takes time and it takes energy.

In the movie, even after Davidge and Jeriba have seemingly settled their own differences and forgotten about the feud between their peoples, old hatreds still bubble up. They still end up fighting with each other, long after most movies would have had them already bury the hatchet and remain friends. In fact, it really isn't until Jeriba dies that Davidge is really forced to confront how much he meant to him as well as his own lingering threads of bigotry.

Despite the terrible special effects that Father Time has not been kind to; despite the clear lack of any indicators--either narratively or editorially--to indicate any clear sense of time; despite the bizarre effort to rival the Bladerunner theatrical release for the title of Worst Voice-Over in Cinematic History, Enemy Mine remains, for me, a poignant film with a bittersweet message of hope. We can overcome hatred and prejudice, and we can move forward together fostering a shared commitment to basic human rights and decency and respect despite our differences, it just takes a lot of effort, and that effort can never end.

All it took for Davidge to overcome his prejudice was

1) Becoming stranded in an isolated, hostile environment with one member of a hated opposing tribe;
2) Being forced to work with the member of this opposing tribe in order to survive;
3) Living for years, alone with his nemesis, begrudgingly learning about his culture as a way to pass time;
4) Suffering setback after setback in the quest for survival, further hammering home exactly how much each has come to depend on the other;
5) Bearing witness to the death of his former enemy in childbirth, forcing him to finally confront his personal, emotional connection;
6) Raising the child of his dead friend to maturity, and teaching said child about his cultural heritage out of necessity and moral obligation to said dead friend;
7) Having his surrogate son captured by slavers;
8) Rescuing that surrogate son from those slavers;
9) Returning with that surrogate son to the home of his ancestors, his former sworn enemies, and reciting the child's lineage in a sacred rite of passage in a gesture of love to his dead friend an a gesture of cultural goodwill to a people he had learned to empathize with.

So, if everyone in the world, through a random act of chance, found themselves in the exact same scenario as above, trapped with a hated enemy and forced to depend on them for survival, we could end all bigotry and hatred, and live together in perfect peace and relative harmony.

Enemy Mine is, like a lot of things from the '80s, an acquired taste. I am simply thankful that I have the corresponding palate to appreciate it. The film is simultaneously an entertaining little sci-fi gem and a the package for an important message. If I had one recommendation for you this week (besides never walking in a public bathroom wearing only socks) it would be to watch Enemy Mine.

Enemy Mine is a 7/10 = One Alien Lizard Head Being Animated By An Academy Award Winning Actor

The Journey

When my siblings and I were young, summer vacation seemed like an eternity. Especially to my mother, the stay-at-home parent to four children. Some of the best memories I have from those summers include the local public library. It was a small town, so the library wasn't exactly suffering from an overabundance of resources, and it seems quite quaint now having studied in libraries that would have held that one from my youth more than a hundred times over. But it nonetheless had a great deal of influence shaping my young mind.

It may have changed now, but when I was in grade school, the upstairs of the local library was the library proper for adults, and the basement was divided into two sections: the children's library and the video rental section. Walking in we knew that going down the stairs to the right led to the children's books, going down the stairs to the left led to the movies, and going upstairs was just plain boring.

It was the video section I remember perhaps most vividly of all. In a time before UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD, or purely digital content, VHS was leading the vanguard of home entertainment. Rows upon rows of spooled film housed in those great, black, rectangle bricks of black plastic. Each one was a doorway to another adventure. Another world.

It was here I furthered my education in the classics. The Twilight Zone. The Outer Limits. Alien Nation. Indiana Jones. Willow. Superman. Clash of the Titans. Dragonslayer. Legend. Bladerunner. And, of course, Enemy Mine.

Cut to years later where I have enough of a disposable income to compile a collection of my own. Over a thousand movies, and still growing. Those childhood memories never really left, and now I have the ability to buy up my childhood. I spent a couple years looking for Enemy Mine on Blu-ray, only to discover that it was released by a boutique label called Twilight Time. Sure, they remaster the film so that it looks and sounds great, but all of their releases are all limited to 3000 copies each. A total dick move, since in the case of films like Enemy Mine, they own the rights so nobody else can release it on Blu-Ray.

So, I'm stuck looking for the DVD copy, which finally surfaces in mint condition at a local used record shop. Twenty years later, and the seed planted in the memory of a small boy grows into a new addition in a carefully curated personal museum, where film and nostalgia are on display in equal measure. 


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