Something of a box-office dud in its original release, “Enemy Mine” was a movie I didn’t catch theatrically in my younger days. I remember being intrigued by the TV trailers for this US-UK-German coproduction, but it was in and out of theaters before I could catch it. I would later see it, via a rented laserdisc on a 25″ TV, circa 1987 or so. Not exactly an ideal way to enjoy a widescreen, Wolfgang Peterson-directed sci-fi film. In spite of the circumstances, I liked what I saw.
Even in the mid-1980s, the story felt very familiar to me, like a bigger budget remake of 1964’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (another favorite underdog survival movie of mine). However, this movie’s familiar survival story between two mortal enemies was given a few new wrinkles, including unplanned parenthood. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, “Enemy Mine” offers a simple message; that empathy and love for our children (however different they may look) might be the light that guides our way into a better universe.
Note: For this review, I finally gave “Enemy Mine” a near-theatrical screening with my HD digital projector in a darkened room onto a 7 ft. /2 meter collapsible screen. It was as close to a cinematic experience as I could without a time machine, and it made a universe of difference.
“Enemy Mine” (1985)
Opening with first-person narration from late 21st century Earth fighter pilot Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid), we learn that humanity of 2092 has reached the stars, and has made an immediate enemy of a reptilian species known as the Dracs. We see battle debris, as well as the bodies of dead human pilots, drifting through space…
Note: Given the unfathomable scale of the universe, territorial disputes in space seem as meaningless as someone in Honolulu putting up an electric, barbed wire fence against their neighbors in Des Moines. The distance between stars and planets would be quarantine enough.
We then see a squadron of two-seater Earth starfighters launched from a massive space station-fortress run by an authority known as the BTA (a humans-only club, by the looks of it). Aboard one of the fighters are a team consisting of pilot/gunner Davidge and his younger copilot, Joey Wooster (Lance Kerwin). Joey is eager to get this little skirmish over with, so that he can be back in time for his big date with a station nurse, who is cruelly teased by Davidge and the other pilots for her weight (not cool, Davidge…).
Note: Davidge’s thoughtless fat-shaming aside, the visual effects of the opening battle are rendered with old-fashioned miniatures, matte paintings and optical star fields, courtesy of no less than Lucasfilm’s California-based Industrial Light & Magic; the company which came into existence for the creation of 1977’s “Star Wars” and has since become a worldwide resource for top-notch visual effects, with locations in San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, Vancouver and London.
Before long, Davidge and Joey and their squadron are swarmed by Drac fighters. The Dracs themselves are teased in closeup shots of their scaly, three-fingered hands running over alien instrument panels. The Dracs take out a few BTA fighters, which Davidge takes very personally. He then breaks formation–and violates orders–to go after one of the Drac fighters. Both ships manage to damage the other, leaving them crippled and falling within an alien planet’s gravity well. Copilot Joey is fatally injured during the descent. After crash-landing on the planet, a panicked Davidge tries to relax Joey, who is bleeding out. With his dying words, Joey tearfully asks Willis to stop teasing his girlfriend about her weight…
Note: I’m saddened to say that, as of this writing, I’ve just learned of the untimely death of actor Lance Kerwin (1960-2023), who played Joey. More on this at the bottom of the column.
Alone on the alien planet, the first thing on Davidge’s mind is payback. Still in his combat uniform, he locates the Drac ship’s crash site; the large, bat-winged fighter is vacated. Davidge notices the craft is leaking a flammable fuel of some kind, and he pockets a small pellet of the substance for later use. Davidge goes on to search for the Drac ship’s escape pod. We also see that Davidge and Drac are not the only life forms on this strange new planet—a large, slimy tendril burrows up from the sand, and ensnares a hard-shelled, multi-eyed, turtle-like creature. The unseen sandpit monster then retracts its tendril to devour the turtle-like creature. After which, the unseen menace spits out a hard, empty shell, which lands near other discarded shells…
Note: Given the movie’s running time of only 110 minutes, some thought clearly went into establishing a local ecology for this alien planet; we see various links of the food chain, water pools, extreme cold spells, and an atmosphere particularly vulnerable to meteorite swarms. While not as extensive as the ecology of “Dune,” for example, it’s more than enough to suspend disbelief for a couple hours.
Davidge scurries up a crest overlooking the crash site of the Drac’s escape pod, which has conveniently landed near a pool of water at the bottom of a canyon. Using his binoculars, Davidge notices the sexless, genderless Drac (Louis Gossett Jr.) stripping out of its spacesuit as it prepares for a swim. As rain begins to fall, Davidge tosses the capsule of flammable fuel into the water and fires a flare, setting it ablaze. Thinking he’s killed his reptilian foe, Davidge then rushes down to see if he can make use of anything in the Drac escape pod for his own survival. Understanding nothing of the alien technology, Davidge promptly electrocutes himself and passes out, just as the Drac emerges from the water unscathed, and takes the human pilot prisoner with its energy weapon. Before the gloating can begin, however, the planet is immediately bombarded by an intense meteor storm, which forces both of them to take cover…
Note: The indoor Budapest soundstages are cavernous, with suitably alien-looking trees, canyons, ponds and weather believably recreated to make this alien planet come alive. The massive sets are beautifully photographed and warmly lit by talented director of photography Tony Imi, who also lensed the Dickensian sets and Shewsbury, England locations for my personally definitive 1984 version of “A Christmas Carol.”
The planet’s mercurial weather and frequent meteor showers force the two mortal enemies into a temporary truce, as Davidge plans to build a crude shelter to protect them against future meteorite storms. Over the days that follow, each begins to pick up a few words of the other’s language, and rudimentary communication is possible. Davidge learns the Drac’s full name is Jeriba Shigin, which he shortens to “Jerry.” Davidge even learns to eat live Drac food, which looks like a mucous-lined human appendix. In time, Davidge manages to create a shelter out of uneven logs, mud, and rocks. Proud of his handiwork, the human pilot then slaps his hand against one of the support logs, and the entire structure crumbles, forcing Jerry into hissing fits of reptilian laughter.
Note: Actor Louis Gossett Jr. (already an Oscar winner for his unforgettable performance as US Naval ‘Sergeant Foley’ in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman”) gives another Oscar-worthy performance here as well. He manages to convey a great breadth of emotions under a ton of heavy prosthetic makeup, with suitably alien head movements, body language, and even laughter that suggests a nonhuman intelligence on parity with (yet very different from) ourselves. Once again, the Academy’s ongoing stigma against science-fiction movies, even after all of these years, is still very out of touch.
Over the months that follow, we see the two grudging allies slowly beginning to trust each other. After a panicked Davidge is nearly pulled underground by one of the sand creature’s slimy tendrils, Jerry uses the energy weapon to zap the creature, forcing it to release its would-be human lunch. A recovering Davidge then realizes that the discarded alien terrapin shells are too hard for the sand creature to digest; which suggests they might be meteor-proof, as well. Determined to “try try again” (in the words of the great human philosopher, Mickey Mouse), Davidge builds another shelter, this time lined with discarded shells, and it works. The two of them move in, as intense alien winters force them to remain indoors, huddling around a fire for warmth. Davidge also notices that Jerry spends much of its time with his face buried in a tiny, metallic alien book, which it wears around its neck (Jerry has no sex or gender). The book is a Drac holy text, which Jerry humbly agrees to teach. As the months go by, the pair are once again forced to seek new shelter in a nearby cave, following a late night ‘home invasion’ by their subterranean nemesis. Meanwhile, Davidge becomes haunted by noises heard in his sleep—noises possibly caused by a human spaceship. Wondering if it might be a rescue party, Davidge cautiously sets out alone to investigate…
Note: Upon rewatching the movie after many years, I was impressed that a movie from 1985 managed to avoid ‘he’ or ‘him’ pronouns when Davidge describes the sexless/genderless Jerry, referring to the being (technically, not disparagingly) as ‘it.’ Given today’s current specificity with honoring people’s preferred gender identities, this was a rare bit of prescience on the screenwriters’ parts. If Jerry identified as nonbinary, or had sexual characteristics of a male, it might be called ‘they’ or ‘he,’ but Jerry clearly states that it has neither gender nor sex.
The now long-haired, bearded Davidge scouts beyond the perimeter of the cave habitat when he finds an empty Pepsi can (really, movie…?). Soon, he spots the ship he heard in his sleep—it’s now the base of an illegal mining operation run by human scavengers, who use captured Dracs as slave labor. Realizing how dangerous this could be for Jerry, Davidge returns to the cave, and keeps the discovery to himself. Jerry also has news—it’s going to be a parent. Davidge isn’t sure how to take the news, when he realizes how unprepared either of them are to be parents at the moment. Jerry tells Davidge that Dracs have no choice in giving birth. Given their asexual nature, they bear offspring involuntarily. As Jerry prepares to go into labor, it shows an interest in Davidge’s biological lineage. Davidge tells Jerry that his dad made computers, his mother was a waitress, and that his grandparents were farmers. Jerry, in turn, teaches Davidge the complex song of its own Drac lineage, so that both may teach it to Sammis; the given name for Jerry’s unborn child.
Note: The complex character-building in this middle act of the film is unusual for a sci-fi movie of this period, as many mainstream 1980s sci-fi movies tended to favor style over substance. “Enemy Mine” bucks this trend, with two former enemies who, in time, share great warmth and sensitivity with each other. It’s even possible to imagine these two characters as possible future lovers, had the movie gone that extra (albeit unnecessary) step…
Jerry soon goes into labor, and something is terribly wrong. The infant is in the wrong position for birth. Jerry realizes its own death is imminent, but hopes that Davidge will cut its abdomen open and save the child. Unable to bear the pain, Jerry dies. A distraught Davidge still sees movement within his friend’s baby bump, and tears into Jerry’s now-lifeless body to save baby Sammis. With no idea how to raise a Drac newborn, Davidge takes great care in pre-chewing the infant Sammi’s food (like a mother bird with her chicks), and keeping it warm.
Note: Once again, the makeup and animatronics of this movie are excellent. The animatronic baby Sammis moves very much like a real infant, and could easily pass muster today. Admittedly, no one knows just how an infant alien looks or moves, but it feels intuitively right. One of the makeup team members on “Enemy Mine” is Chris Walas (of Chris Walas Inc), soon to win a shared Oscar for the utterly grotesque makeups seen in 1986’s brilliant reimagining of “The Fly” (starring Jeff Goldblum), and future director of its 1989 sequel, “The Fly II” (starring Eric Stoltz).
Given the Drac’s faster rate of growth, little Sammis (Bumper Robinson) rapidly sprouts to the size of a human 9 or 10-year old. The child is learning both English and the Drac language, and even learns a modified, one-on-one version of American football, courtesy of “Uncle”; Sammis’ given name for its parent figure. Despite their physical/biological differences, the two of them become a family.
Note: Actor Bumper Robinson, whose full name is Larry C. Robinson II, gives a truly amazing performance, acting under the same layers of makeup as veteran actor, Louis Gossett Jr, but being only 9 or 10-years old at the time (!). Robinson’s performance is easily on a par with the child performances seen in 1982’s “E.T.”
Sammis is beginning to observe the many differences with its Uncle; why Davidge has five fingers, instead of three, for example. Davidge does his best to explain to Sammis that it’s a Drac, and that Dracs are biologically different from humans. Davidge also does his best to allay Sammis’ insecurities by promising never to leave the child’s side. Sammis also shows great curiosity about what lies beyond the mountain ranges (where the surly scavengers’ mining operation is located). Davidge warns Sammis that it’s very dangerous. Sammis can’t understand why they should be afraid, since “Uncle” is human. Davidge tries to explain that the humans over the ridge aren’t very good people. Unfortunately, the too-curious Sammis wanders off, after an exhausted Davidge falls asleep…
Note: An older Bumper Robinson would later return to the world of acting under heavy prosthetics when he guest-starred on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “The Abandoned” (1994). In that episode, Robinson played a rapidly-growing, genetically-engineered ‘Jam’Hadar’ soldier, who was abandoned in infancy before being taken in by station security chief, Odo (René Auberjonois), whom the young soldier worships as a god.
Awakening to find Sammis gone from their cave, a panicked Davidge grabs his homemade bow and quiver of arrows to go off in search for the child. Reaching the mining campsite, the long-haired, bedraggled Davidge looks all over for Sammis, and finds the child being tormented by the vicious, sadistic scavenger leader, Stubbs (Brion James) and his kid brother, Johnny (Scott Kraft). Slipping into the mining site unobserved, Davidge sends an arrow through the neck of Johnny, which kills him, of course, but also prevents involuntary cries for help. Davidge tries to sneak up on Stubbs, who’s just been scratched in the face by Sammis’ claws, and has clearly lost all patience. Stubbs pulls out a gun and repeatedly shoots Davidge, leaving him for dead. Stubbs then grabs the child, and returns to the central mining ship. Later that night, searchlights from a random BTA scout vehicle find Davidge’s unmoving body on a rock…
Note: ^ Just in case anyone’s worried about a lack of action or event at this point…
Davidge’s unrecognizably bearded, longhaired corpse is then returned to the BTA mothership, three years after his crash. Listed as a John Doe, his body is about to be fired out of an airlock for a generic, no-frills space funeral. Briefly unzipping Davidge’s body bag, one of the attendants reaches for the tiny metallic Drac bible Davidge wears around his neck, prompting Davidge’s ‘corpse’ to reach up and grab the attendant by the throat. The still-alive Davidge is revived, and his gunshot wounds are healed with advanced BTA medical facilities. Once cleaned up and fully recovered from his injuries, a determined Davidge tells his superior, Arnold (Richard Marcus) that he’s taking another starfighter down to the planet. That idea doesn’t go over well.
Note: One of my few nitpicks with this movie is the lack of significant character development from any of Davidge’s fighter jock colleagues, including Cates (Henry Stolow), Morse (Carolyn McCormick) and the aforementioned Arnold. However, given the movie’s 110 minute running time, and the more important stories of its core characters (Davidge, Jerry and Sammis), it’s a fair trade. Perhaps it’s better that we don’t know the other human characters, anyway, since the BTA (judging by the leather uniforms and disregard for life) seems to be a government descended into fascism. A strong vibe of Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” permeates the BTA…
Despite his fresh-shaven appearance and new uniform, Davidge is no longer a military man; he’s a family man, first and foremost. His obligation to Sammis is all that matters, and Sammis needs him right now. Disobeying orders, he slips into the cockpit of a fresh new starfighter, and powers up. With the station alerted to his actions, Davidge is denied clearance for launch. As alarms go off and the outer bay doors lock down, Davidge fires his energy weapons—blowing two of the doors off into space. He launches…
Note: The familiar-sounding hangar bay klaxon, and the sounds of the energy beam blasters on Davidge’s fightership, were both originally used in the cult space opera TV series, “Space: 1999” (1975-1977).
Returning to the planet, Davidge lands near the scavenger mining camp, and slips into the poorly guarded operation. Once there, he immediately speaks Drac among the slave laborers, showing them his holy book necklace, and asking if they’ve seen Sammis. They exhausted, beaten Dracs still manage to smile when they see Davidge; they know of Sammis, and of Sammis’ human “Uncle.” Davidge’s story has become local legend. When asked where the child might be, one of the older Dracs only remembers that the child was taken away by Stubbs into the main mining ship. Davidge is forced to take out a few human overseers to gain access…
Note: The individual Drac makeups are carefully crafted to give each of the Dracs a unique character and appearance, making them all look like authentically different members of the same race, instead of actors all wearing copies of the same rubber heads made from the same mold. Once again, this was truly extraordinary makeup, and it deserved peer recognition.
Using a freshly murdered guard’s jacket and hat, Davidge stealthily moves into the main mining ship undetected. Walking unobserved over a gantry, he locates the unconscious Sammis, and uses a nearby iron lever to lift a heavy metal grating off the child’s body. Confronted by Stubbs, who’s still angry over the murder of his brother, Davidge finds himself in the fight of his life. As BTA fighters fly to the planet, Davidge is nearly overpowered by the brutally strong Stubbs, but the tide is turned when the Drac slave laborers shoot Stubbs, using the discarded weapon of a dead overseer. The tide is turned, and a Drac slave revolt has begun…
Note: I appreciated that the beaten down Drac slave laborers weren’t just sad-faced victims—they also play a vital role in both freeing Sammis and themselves. This prevents the movie from descending into the dreaded ‘white savior’ cliché.
With the evil Stubbs gone, and his gang overthrown, the BTA authorities arrive in time to clean up the illegal mining operation. The reviving Sammis still manages to recognize its shorthaired, but battle-worn ‘Uncle.’ They share a joyous hug. The sight of a human military pilot risking everything to save a single Drac child is not lost on the Dracs, or the BTA authorities, some of whom feel their own humanity rekindled, as well.
Note: Davidge’s fighter pilot colleagues, whom we saw in space battles, and during his brief return to the BTA station, are also on hand during the reunion between he and Sammis. A female pilot, “Morse,” is played by Carolyn McCormick, who would memorably guest-star in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “11001001” a couple of years later, where she played a sultry, jazz-loving, slow-dancing, French-speaking hologram named “Minuet,” who was designed as a diversion to prevent a relaxing Commander Riker from realizing his ship was being hijacked. The popular character returned, but only in a photograph, during the series’ 4th season episode, “Future Imperfect.”
Galatic peace is at hand, as the final scene takes place on the Drac homeworld, in a wide matte shot only (no closeups). There, we hear Davidge fulfilling his promise to sing his late friend Jerry’s lineage in a traditional Drac ceremony before Sammis and a large assembly of well-wishers. We learn, through narration, that Sammis would later include “Uncle” Willis Davidge in his own lineage song, many years later…
Note: The matte shot used for the final scene is a clever, budget-saving move; it avoids having to recreate any part of the Drac homeworld for actors to inhabit, let alone provide makeup for hundreds of Drac extras. It also adds a lyrical, poetic feel to the film’s final moment. Matte painting supervisors Craig Barron and Michael Pangrazio (both “Star Wars” veterans) are credited with the matte work done for the movie. They deserve a round of applause.
Summing It Up
Efficiently directed by Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot,” “In the Line of Fire”) with story credit to Barry Longyear (based on his 1979 novella), and a screenplay by Edward Khmara, “Enemy Mine” was unfairly lost in the shuffle of more popular 1980s sci-fi/fantasy films, such as “Back to the Future,” “Gremlins,” and “Ghostbusters.” The movie’s reputation was marred before its release, following the firing of original director Richard Loncraine, whose returning footage wasn’t what producers had hoped. Despite the costly move of replacing directors, it was creatively worth it. The central planet of the film is imaginatively brought to life using a combination of suitably-altered Budapest soundstages, and exotic Icelandic locations.
The Drac makeup is stunningly executed as well, appearing to pulse and breathe with organic life, all in synch with the reptilian body language and gestures of Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr. (“An Oscar and a Gentleman”). Gossett truly deserved an Oscar nomination for his exotic and unexpectedly moving performance as “Jerry.” Gossett’s performance brings out the best in former “JAWS 3-D” costar Dennis Quaid (1983’s “The Right Stuff”), as well. The two play off of each other very well, with just the right levels of antagonism and empathy. Throwing all but the kitchen sink into the role of “Willis Davidge,” Quaid gives what might be seen as a career-best as well. Also of note is child actor Bumper Robinson, who plays young “Sammis.” Considering that (then) 10-year old Robinson was working under uncomfortable makeup and contact lenses, he gives one of the best, and most underrated child performances of the 1980s (and yes, that includes Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in “E.T.”)
The movie’s story isn’t exactly new or original. Precedents include 1964’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” TV’s Galactica 1980 (“The Return of Starbuck”), or any number of Star Trek episodes for similar tales of bitterly hostile, rival aliens being forced to survive together. There’s also a more earthbound example, with the Tony Curtis/Sidney Poitier film, “The Defiant Ones” (1958). What makes “Enemy Mine” different from the rest is the added dimension of parental love; that’s what gives this movie its heart, beyond simple cooperation for survival’s sake. Davidge becomes Jerry’s family, by taking Sammis as his own. That bond is also what brings an apparent armistice to the movie’s deadly war. While originally created for a Cold War audience of the 1980s, the movie’s central message of love in spite of differences resonates even more profoundly today, given our increasingly acidic cultural, social and political clashes around the world (and even online…).
One of my few criticisms of the film is that the villainy (mainly the late Brion James and his scavenger overseers), feels somewhat cartoonish. There’s also no time to develop any of the characters from the BTA space station, either. Granted, the focus of the movie in on Davidge, Jerry and Sammis, but it might’ve been interesting to see more of what Davidge was fighting for before he was stranded. There’s also a clumsy Pepsi product placement mid-movie, as well. All the same, none of these nitpicks sink the film.
At a brisk 110 minutes, “Enemy Mine” offers a trio of surprisingly powerful performances, charming 1980s optical FX, and exotic alien makeups that hold up beautifully today. Something of an underdog among the sci-fi films of its time, “Enemy Mine” is well worth digging into.
Lance Kerwin (“Joey Wooster”), 1960-2023
As of this writing, I have just learned that actor Lance Kerwin, who played copilot Joey Wooster, has passed away at age 62. At this time, the cause of death remains unknown. Kerwin first made an impression on me at a very young age on TV’s “James at 15” (1977) and later in the classic horror miniseries “Salem’s Lot” (1979) as well as Showtime’s “Faerie Tale Theatre” (1985). Dropping out of acting after appearing in 1995’s “Outbreak,” the actor made a recent comeback in 2022’s “The Wind and the Reckoning.” From a young age, Kerwin was a gifted actor, known for great sensitivity in his performances. He will be missed.
Where To Watch
“Enemy Mine” can be streamed on Hulu.com, but only with the STARZ add-on. It can also be streamed/purchased on Amazon’s PrimeVideo, as well as iTunes and YouTube ($3.99-$9.99). The movie can also be purchased on DVD/BluRay via Amazon.com (prices vary by seller).
9 Comments Add yours
Enemy Mine made quite an impression on my family when we first saw it (I was in my mid teens) which unfortunately wasn’t in the cinema either. It indeed helped to make 1985 a good sci-fi year along with Back To The Future, Brazil, The Quiet Earth and Cocoon. I recently re-watched it with my pen-pals on a video chat and we all enjoyed it and shared good words on it. Thank you for your review.
And that’s really cool, watching it on a video chat. What a great idea.
You’re welcome. It was actually my own recommendation at the time.
A personal favorite of mine. It was shown in heavy rotation during weekend movie marathons back in the day and was always a welcome treat.
On a side note I swear the miniatures for the human ships were reused from the villains in the “Jews In Space” segment of History of the World, Part 1.
I don’t know if that’s true, but back in the pre-CGI age, you often saw repurposed miniatures used in movies and TV shows. Common practice, really.
Edit: Turns out the Drac ships were batwing shaped (almost like the “Cylon raiders” in 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica”), whereas the ships in “History of the World Part 1” were shaped like Stars of David.
A great film, all too often overlooked. I keep wishing to come across more films as good. Thanks for another excellent review.
Thanks for the kind words!
“Enemy Mine” is a treasure.
Another nice write up ! I remember watching this and enjoyed it thoroughly ….. as I write this I just learned of Lisa Loring’s passing ….along with Lance Kerwin and so many other TV personalities my age going , it certainly puts our fragile existence here in perspective …….
I just woke up to the news of Lisa Loring. My goodness…😞