Enemy Mine (1985, Wolfgang Petersen)

Enemy Mine has one great performance from Louis Gossett Jr., one strong mediocre performance from Dennis Quaid, one adorable performance from Bumper Robinson (as a tween alien), and terrible performances from everyone else. The film’s most impressive quality is a tossup. It’s either Gossett’s performance (and makeup) or it’s how well Mine hides director Petersen’s ineptitude at directing actors for so long.

The film opens with Quaid narrating the history of the future. Humans in a space war with aliens. There’s some human fighter pilot stuff; not great acting, but it’s hurried and the emphasis is on the sci-fi. Petersen’s a lot more comfortable with showcasing the sci-fi setting than doing anything in it. Anyway, in the first act, the terrible performances from the actors are passable. Their presence is brief; once Quaid crashes onto an uncharted planet, they’re gone.

For a while, Enemy Mine then becomes this xenophobic look at Gossett’s alien–all from Quaid’s perspective–until the two finally clash. Some speedy contrivances lead to the two marooned warriors realizing they need each other and teaming up. There’s a lot of bickering, with some particularly mean stuff from Quaid (the movie opens with some casual misogyny from Quaid’s character, so the mean streak is well-established), but they learn to get along.

Despite being awkwardly plotted, the second act of the film is a big success. The scenes with Quaid and Gossett are fantastic, always because Gossett’s performance is so exceptionally good. It doesn’t matter how silly the scenes get, or how thin Edward Khmara’s dialogue for Quaid gets. Enemy Mine all of a sudden delivers on promise the first act didn’t even suggest it had.

The plot eventually comes in and takes away screen time from Gossett. Quaid goes on an exploration quest with troubling result. The exploration scenes are where some of Petersen’s narrative distance issues start to present. Petersen’s only comfortable with extreme long shot–to showcase the filming location–and reaction close-up. And the reaction (for Quaid) has to be to something dire. Otherwise, Petersen has no interest in how Quaid’s experiencing the exploration. Strange since he’s the narrator.

As the film goes into the third act, with Robinson coming into the film, it’s in a weaker condition. Not because of Robinson, who’s good (and gives Quaid something new to do with the performance), but because Khmara doesn’t write summary well and Petersen doesn’t direct it well. Then comes the action-packed third act, where Petersen is only comfortable in his extreme long shots. There are some close-ups to the action, but it’s poorly choreographed and terribly edited (by Hannes Nikel).

All of those third act long shots are of spacecraft. There’s the space station, there’s the bad guys’ spaceship. Somehow Quaid manages to never go anywhere with cramped quarters. And the production design is great. Rolf Zehetbauer’s production design on Enemy Mine is outstanding. All the set decoration. Just not Petersen’s direction of that design or decoration. Petersen’s misguided and committed.

Technically, Enemy Mine is a mixed bag. Tony Imi’s photography is all right. It doesn’t have any personality, but its lack of intensity slows down the rushed summary sequences in the first act. It helps give the film character. As does Maurice Jarre’s somewhat infectious and saccharine score. It too gives the film character. Not good character, as Jarre’s score is way too indulgent and detached, but character. Enemy Mine isn’t the most original film, but it’s distinct.

Terrible supporting performances. Brion James is worst because he’s in it the most. Then Richard Marcus and Scott Kraft. There’s something seriously wrong with how Petersen directed the supporting actors on Enemy Mine. Everyone’s bad but those three are just godawful.

But Quaid steps up for the third act and makes up for it. As much as he can. The film’s against him. It goes from the poorly directed Petersen action to a rushed finale. Quaid ingloriously loses his narration privileges for the denouement. A new, omnipotent (uncredited) narrator closes off Enemy Mine on a rather low point.

It’s unfortunate but not a surprise given how much trouble Petersen and Khmara have with, you know, the storytelling.

Great performance from Gossett. Truly amazing given the make-up and so on. Quaid provides able support to Gossett, stepping up when he’s got to do the same for Robinson. They make Enemy Mine something special.

Well, them and Chris Walas, who does the makeup.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Edward Khmara, based on the story by Barry Longyear; director of photography, Toni Imi; edited by Hannes Nikel; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Rolf Zehetbauer; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Davidge), Louis Gossett Jr. (Drac), Bumper Robinson (Zammis), Brion James (Stubbs), Richard Marcus (Arnold), Carolyn McCormick (Morse), Lance Kerwin (Wooster), Scott Kraft (Jonathan), and Jim Mapp (Old Drac).


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