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Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, taking over when original director Richard Loncraine was fired, Enemy Mine is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Barry B. Longyear, though most dramatically altered in that producers demanded a subplot that involved an actual mine, convinced that audiences wouldn’t understand that the title was in fact a purposeful second language grammar possessive error meaning ‘My enemy’. Dennis Quad is Willis Davidge, a resourceful but quick-tempered pilot who has no love for the Drac race, and when he sees that Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.) has survived the dogfight and crashed like him, things don’t go quite so smoothly, but as meteorites shower down and hazardous natural phenomena cause more pressing life-threatening concerns, the two are forced to work together if they want to live. The story shines best with the two leads, who both are very convincing, and Gossett Jr. especially looks great in some effective prosthetics using a speaking style he himself created.
In fact, the movie looks good all around, with some other-worldly looking sets and special effects, but is weakest when handling its premise, which degrades into a standard ‘male-bonding’ story that is more contrivance than creativity. There are simply no challenges beyond the immediacy of the environment for the two to face, and once Jeriba learns English, he might as well be human. While the alien does look good, the only thing that separates him from Willis is Drac’s asexuality, which necessitates a child to arrive and turn the story about two unlikely species trying to survive into a tale of rescue and redemption. It’s unfortunate as a much more interesting story could have been accomplished if Drac was truly different in every way, and the world they crashed on wasn’t so easily settled. As a science fiction story it lacks almost everything that would make it so, but still manages to compel, mostly due to the performances. And this moment:
In case you aren’t able to watch the video, it is basically Willis trying to get Jebira to feed him. Perhaps the most difficult thing in meeting someone who doesn’t speak your language is getting yourself understood. This is the dilemma for both Jeriba and Willis, but made worse since they are also enemies and of different species. Drac has essentially captured Willis, binding him with rope and preventing him from using his legs or arms, but he hasn’t killed him, which signals something merciful. Fortunately, there are at least some commonalities the two species share, like a name. And eating. With basic hand gestures the two are able to make rudimentary conversation, even if it’s not friendly.
There’s a real authenticity to this encounter that feels just the way it might really happen. The two are using their own languages and both are beginning to hear patterns and repetition in the sounds. These sounds are being matched with hand motions that verify meaning while each struggles to make the other understand. This is key for comprehension, and their repetition and positive reinforcements are not only genuine, but exciting. We as the audience try to follow along, looking at all the clues, listening to the odd gurgles of the throaty alien voice, trying to understand ourselves, playing the ‘what if?’ game in our head.
Starvation is a powerful drive, often ebbing the most basic limitation we set on ourselves. Trapped on a hostile planet and captured by the enemy, Willis knows the most important thing he requires is food. He’s not dead yet, which, at best, indicates something about his enemies intentions. With nothing but his voice as a weapon, he makes demands (keeping his dignity), and what follows is a wonderful exchange between them that is only half understood by Willis and the audience, and yet works remarkably well. Gossett Jr. is superb in his delivery of this fictional language, his head and facial gestures so expressive, even behind the mask we seem to know what he is saying. It feels true and therefore fills the scene with incredible urgency.
There is a rawness to the moment, and it’s punctuated by the knowledge that Jeriba comes to fully understand what the repeated ‘food’ means. And here, the two, having only meaningless sounds to shout at each other, using something else to try to maintain dominance. Jebira offers him a grotesque slug of sorts, perhaps already having some knowledge of what humans typically consume, and holds it above his enemy like an owner teasing a pet. Willis, repulsed by the grub, swallows his pride and bites at the creature, ingesting it, all the while staring down his enemy. This is why the scene works so well, as it invests the viewer in the experience, something that might not be obvious as it’s happening but is noticeable once the two have leapt that hurdle and learned how to talk in each other’s languages. With verbal understanding, the communication is restored to familiar and comfortable terms for the audience, and while it allows the story to proceed, it also significantly reduces the tension the premise creates. With Jeriba basically a human being (aside from his asexuality), the film is more like two people from different countries rather than different worlds.
Barry Longyear (story), Edward Khmara (screenplay)
Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett Jr., Brion James