Enemy Mine had the potential to be a science fiction classic, but gets bogged down by Hollywood clichés. The script is based on a short story of the same name by Barry B. Longyear. Indeed, the first two-thirds of the film feel like classic science fiction. The last third doesn’t.
The concept is quite simple. In the future, humans are at war with an alien race called the Drac. A human pilot, Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid), crashes on a planet with a Drac pilot, Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett, Jr.). The two have to learn to overcome their differences for the sake of survival in a hostile environment.
The first part of the story works quite well. Gossett imbues the Drac with truly alien characteristics and mannerisms. His performance has a physicality to it that conveys much about the character even before he learns to speak English. Davidge and Jeriba’s friendship grows naturally as they each contribute skills necessary to their survival. The two teach each other about their respective cultures and religious beliefs, leading to a hilarious exchange in which Jeriba believes Mickey Mouse is a human deity. Enemy Mine could have been a meaningful film about intercultural differences.
Unfortunately, the final third of the movie devolves into a clichéd action sequence. Davidge has to rescue a child Drac from a group of human miners. The miners come across as one-dimensional and evil. They enjoy torturing Dracs and have no redeeming qualities. For a film about intercultural understanding, this seems surprisingly shallow. Moreover, Davidge doesn’t use any of his newfound insights to solve the problem, but rather charges in with brute force. Overall, the ending seems like an attempt to tack on action to a story that didn’t require it.
Longyear’s story has been adapted much more faithfully in other media. My favorite version is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok.” In that episode, Captain Picard and a Tamarian captain are stranded on a planet, where they must defeat a monster. The episode works so well because, unlike Enemy Mine, the resolution of the conflict depends upon Picard’s increased intercultural understanding. Picard must learn to decipher the complex Tamarian language, which relies heavily on metaphors, in order to defuse a standoff with a Tamarian battlecruiser.
Enemy Mine isn’t a bad movie so much as a disappointing one. It could have provided an important lesson in intercultural understanding. Instead, the film comes off as confused. Ironically, the special effects and acting have aged relatively well, but the story hasn’t. Perhaps Longyear’s original story was never suited to the Hollywood of the mid-1980s, which was still dominated by the shadow of Star Wars.