Enemy Mine

Dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1985. Starring: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett, Jr. English. Science Fiction.

Uncle Davidge’s Cabin Enemy Mine joins a long list of Hollywood films using alien-human tension as an allegory for race relations. The line begins with Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a 1960s space opera currently released by Criterion with a beautiful new transfer. Departing from the Daniel Defoe novel, the Friday character is not black, but he is still a slave, and the fact that he’s an alien, as well as his lowly status, still positions the white explorer as the Other’s protector. During the Cold War science fiction films used the alien-human dichotomy again to symbolize the lack of understanding between communist and capitalist ideology, sometimes propagandistically (Don Siegel’s chilling 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers), sometimes as a sympathetic plea for understanding (from Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still all the way to James Cameron’s The Abyss). But concerns about racial equality remained, addressed in various forms from the original Star Trek series to John Sayles’s underrated, overlooked masterpiece Brother from Another Planet.

In the year 2092 we’ve achieved world peace (I guess there must have been some glitches after Obama achieves it in 2009) so the human race decides to devote itself to exploration and economic development of the far reaches of space. On the course of its journey it discovers an alien race with imperialistic ambitions of its own, the Draks. During a VERY Star Wars-esque fighter plane battle, human pilot Willis Davidge (Jerry Lee Lewis, a.k.a Dennis Quaid) and Drak pilot Jeriba (Dolph Lundgren’s pursuer cop in The Punisher, Louis Gossett Jr.) are shot down over an uninhabited and hostile planet. Initially distrustful of one another, Davidge and Jeriba soon learn the other’s language, and form a close, fraternal bond. Davidge soon discovers that the contents of Jeriba’s prized book contain the same teachings as the Bible, because “truth is truth, no matter in what language.” Enemy Mine is full of warm scenes of brotherhood and life lessons learned, set against majestic, fully-rendered matte paintings. (Matte paintings, when special effects were beautiful.) Although Jeriba’s skin is a tawny brown and he is played by an African-American actor, the differences between Davidge and he are treated as primarily cultural, until a third-act racial twist involving Robinson Crusoe-esque scenes of slave labor and benevolent white protection. Although the film has a positive message and good intentions, Davidge’s near single-handed rescue of a gang of enslaved Drak miners projects a message redolent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that racial equality will come at the hands of enlightened and sympathetic whites, rather than Black agency or even integrated effort. The simplistic treatment may come from director Wolfgang Petersen’s German nationality and hence a lack of experience with the subtext’s subject matter. These faults are minor in comparison with Enemy Mine’s many virtues: an epic story centered around two isolated “Waiting for Godot” type characters, excellent production design, and an idealistic, if flawed, message.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Nov 8, 2008 4:36pm
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