It would be fair to say that the period from 1977 to 1986 could be considered a Golden Age for science fiction cinema, particularly for devotees of space opera. It was kicked rudely into life by the overwhelming success of Star Wars in 1977 and would slowly fade out in the mid-eighties, ending however, with an almighty bang when James Cameron’s Aliens hit the big screen in 1986.
From that point on galactic empires became the province of television starting with Star Trek The Next Generation in 1987 while earthbound settings became the norm for the big screen, mostly in the form of alien invasions and future dystopias, but one of the last significant films of this Golden Age is Wolfgang Petersen’s visually arresting 1985 survival adventure Enemy Mine.
Best described as a mashup of Battlestar Galactica, John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific and Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it boasts exceptional production values and two superb lead actors, Dennis Quaid as Willis Davidge and Louis Gossett Jr as Jeriba.
Taking place in the late 21st Century, Enemy Mine shows a now-united Earth which is at war with a reptilian alien species, the Dracs. Davidge is a fighter pilot stationed in a frontier battle station, and while repelling a Drac attack he finds himself stranded on a desolate planet with a dead co-pilot and a shattered-beyond-repair ship.
He soon encounters the Drac pilot (Louis Gossett Jr) he had shot down during the attack but whilst attempting to finish him off instead becomes his captive. The two eventually bond over shared adversity and, finding common ground, decide co-operation is best for survival, beginning to learn much about each other’s language and culture. Things then take an unexpected turn when Jeriba reveals himself to be pregnant, the Drac being a hermaphroditic species who reproduce by spontaneous parthenogenesis, and Willis finds himself with an extra responsibility when Jeriba dies in childbirth.
At the time of filming both Quaid and Gossett were high-profile film actors. Both had appeared together in 1983 in the execrable Jaws 3D but managed to survive the experience relatively unscathed. After years of leading work in low-budget features, Quaid had had his first real success in The Right Stuff a couple of years earlier and had followed this with Dreamscape in 1983 alongside Kate Capshaw, Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer, his first major venture into the cinema of the fantastic.
Now firmly established as a go-to leading man, he would move from Enemy Mine to The Big Easy opposite Ellen Barkin and Innerscape for director Joe Dante, a period which could be considered the high point in his long career which continues to this day, his later genre roles including Dragonheart, Frequency, The Day After Tomorrow, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, Pandorum and Legion.
Louis Gossett Jr had had a solid career as a character actor before he appeared in An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982 which earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor, the first African American recipient, but his career also encompassed several well-known genre titles of the small screen, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Dead Zone and Stargate SG-1.
Taken from a story by Barry Longyear and scripted by Ed Khmara, Enemy Mine had a chequered start, with production beginning in Budapest in 1984 with the British director Richard Loncraine but shut down by 20th Century Fox after only a week. The film was then handed over to German director Wolfgang Petersen who at the time was putting the finishing touches to his Neverending Story which would become a huge international hit; Peterson moved production to Munich and started from scratch, leading to significant delays.
Released during Christmas 1985, the film drew poor reviews and did very badly at the box office, languishing in relative obscurity ever since and remaining a fond memory only for those who saw it first time around. Timing was partly to blame as the space adventure genre had pretty much ground to a halt in the cinema and the graphically violent Enemy Mine was hardly a family-friendly Christmas film.
At a time when R-rated genre films are becoming commercially viable and fashionable once more, Enemy Mine strikes one as a film that may now fit into the lower end of that category and is a reminder that many of the genre films from the early 1980s were made with a more mature audience in mind. We have become so inured nowadays to family-friendly levels of violence and storytelling in modern films that it is striking to see the levels of gore and hear the casual profanities that are littered throughout this film; having said that, the film has attracted a 12 certificate on this disc release.
Similarly, the narrative pacing, by modern standards, is glacially slow and a seemingly inordinate amount of time is spent on establishing the growing relationship between the two pilots before the main plot finally kicks in, as Davidge and young Drac Zammis (Larry “Bumper” Robinson, later the teenage Jem’Hadar on Star Trek Deep Space Nine‘s The Abandoned and now the voice of Falcon on the Avengers Assemble cartoon come into conflict with the scavenger Stubbs (Brion James of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element).
Two brief but notable supporting roles come from Lance Kerwin of the 1979 television mini-series of ‘Salem’s Lot as Wooster and Carolyn McCormick of Star Trek The Next Generation‘s 11001001 as Morse, both members of Davidge’s aerial combat unit.
Shot mostly on sound stages but with some very effective location work in Lanzarote and boasting very high production values, Enemy Mine does stand apart from most other Hollywood product of the time largely due to being put together in European studios by European craftspeople which lends it a distinct visual feel.
This is also due to Petersen drafting in his own designer, Rolf Zehetbauer, which explains the more-than-passing visual resemblance to some scenes in The Neverending Story, but the vast sets representing the Bilateral Terran Alliance station and the rugged surface of Fyrine IV are impressive and encompassing.
One of the most striking elements was Gossett’s prosthetic make-up designed by Chris Walas (Gremlins, Return of the Jedi, Dragonslayer) which was cutting-edge at the time of release and still impresses mightily today, the development of which contributed to the production delays. Coupled with his exceptionally detailed performance, Gossett makes sure that Jeriba is sorely missed once he leaves the story.
Watched with modern eyes, at times Enemy Mine appears talky, slow and the script is slightly silly, however the superb production values and the absolute commitment of the two leading men, particularly Gossett, make this a film still to be reckoned with and its message of tolerance and understanding is as important as ever.
As a reminder of how things used to be made before the advent of ubiquitous pick and mix computer generated imagery, this is definitely one of the better examples of its kind and is a reminder of how much we have lost in the relentless march towards virtual settings.
The picture and sound quality on this Blu-ray release are exemplary, although some scenes are slightly overgraded particularly in the space dogfight which opens the film, leading to some unsightly shimmering around the visual elements which could have been disguised in a darker transfer.
The only extras on this release are a poor-quality trailer and an even poorer-quality extended scene which looks to have been taken from a ropey VHS source, however for connoisseurs of quality genre cinema this is a worthy addition to any collection, but it also worth noting that this is the UK Blu-ray debut of the full version of the film which was heavily edited on its cinematic release.
Enemy Mine is available on Blu-ray from Eureka from 20th June