Enemy Mine is based on Barry B. Longyear’s 1980 Hugo- and Nebula-award winning novella of the same name, originally published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and later rewritten into a novel and even expanded into a trilogy. It is also Wolfgang Petersen’s US-debut film direction, after his international breakthrough with the German World War II movie Das Boot (1981), which received six Academy Award nominations, and the well-received fantasy film The NeverEnding Story(1984).
After the studio had stopped filming over creative differences with director Richard Loncraine, Petersen took over production of Enemy Mine and started from scratch. He insisted on a redesign of the alien and decided against on-location filming, instead moving to Bavaria Studios in Munich for most of the film and building a full-blown set, extending both production cost and time. The cost of $40 million was not recovered, as the film could convince neither critics nor audiences, with a gross income of $1.6 million on opening weekend at the box office (“Enemy Mine”).
The film, just as the novella, tells the story of two space fighter pilots at war becoming stranded on a hostile planet without hope for rescue. After initial hostilities, Willis “Will” Davidge, the human, and Jeriba “Jerry” Shigan, the Drac, learn that they must band together in order to survive in the harsh environment. Overcoming their original prejudices they form an intimate friendship with each other and when Jeriba dies in childbirth (Drac are hermaphrodites), Will cares for the child, Zammis, as his own, later in the film even rescuing it from enslavement by other humans.
The Drac are a reptilian-humanoid species from planet Dracon, with horny protrusions and plates covering head and body, speaking in a complex language consisting of clicks, snarls and gurgles, and reproducing via parthenogenesis, without partners or sexual activity. In their visual representation, they are similar to the Gorn, known from the “Arena” episode of the original Star Trek (S01E18). Their culture is formalistic and driven by honor, adhering to traditions, rituals, and recitations. The most important factor defining a Drac’s identity is its lineage, which is passed on orally and must be presented by its parent in a rite of passing before acceptance of the new member into Drac society.
Far from subtle, Enemy Mine is a story about the alien as a stand-in for human otherness, especially in the context of war and the dehumanization of the enemy. As reviewers have pointed out, the film (and most likely the novella) were strongly inspired by John Boorman’s film Hell in the Pacific (1968) about an American and a Japanese fighter pilot marooned on an island, struggling with each other, before learning to cooperate and escaping the island on a raft (see Whyte, Muir). Not only the similar storyline hints at this conflation of the Japanese with the alien, but also Enemy Mine’s emphasis on the rigorous hierarchy of Drac society and its belief system of ancestry, which plays into “Western perceptions of … East Asia” (Whyte). The film starts out with Will delivering racial slurs (“toadface”, “lizard”) and typical war propaganda about his enemy, highlighting their obvious differences: “I knew they were completely inhuman, not even male and female, but both, bundled together, in a scaly reptilian body.”
But over the course of the film, Will, as a stand-in for the audience, comes to the deeply humanist understanding that the Drac is essentially human underneath its scales. Instead of struggling with the unbridgeable divide of language that alienates the Japanese and American soldiers in Hell in the Pacific, Jerry and Will easily find to each other by Jerry’s ability to learn English. Jerry’s conversations with Will about religion, tradition and family make the Drac appear, in Roger Ebert’s words, “scarcely less human than human” and ultimately reveal the similarities of the two protagonists, the alien race becoming nothing more than “lovable characters in reptile skins” (Ebert). Alien characteristics are made use of by the film as excuses for plotlines to develop, emphasizing not the acceptance of difference but rather the commonality of a humanity hidden in the alien.
At the end of both film and book, Zammis is captured by human slavers, and Will is recovered by a human patrol ship. His connection with Zammis drives Will to rescue the child and help it gain entrance into Drac society. But whereas the literary form here stresses the need to understand the alien culture, by letting Will translate scripture and proving his knowledge of Drac traditions and Zammis’ lineage, the film sidetracks this cultural education in favor of an action-filled finale including a shoot-out with the slavers in order to rescue Zammis. The reading of the lineage before the Drac’s elder council becomes transported into the epilogue, performed out of feelings of duty rather than a strong understanding of its value for the alien culture.
The film did not have a strong impact on its audience in the 1980s, perhaps due to its too-early and too blunt attempt at humanizing the alien, which in the Reagan-era would more easily have been read as Soviet than Japanese and stood at odds with the shoot-first-Zeitgeist better portrayed in the contemporary Aliens (Cameron 1986). Nonetheless, in the following years Enemy Mine has had noteworthy impact on the portrayal of aliens in science fiction television, for example in the Stargateepisode “Enemy Mine” (S07E07), in which an alliance between humans and Unas needs to be formed. The film finds its most famous influence in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” (S05E02), where Captain Picard and his Tamarian counterpart Captain Dathon find themselves alone on a desolate planet and desperately need to find communication with each other. Both TV shows use reptilian-humanoid aliens, language barriers, and the ultimate resolution of conflict via cooperation and cultural understanding inspired by Enemy Mine, making its portrayal of the Drac an important influence on today’s science fiction.
Dir. Wolfgang Petersen, Screenpl. Edward Khmara
Hell in the Pacific. Dir. John Boorman. Cinerama, 1968. Film.
Star Trek, Creat. Gene Roddenbery. NBC. 1966-69. TV Series.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, Creat. Gene Roddenbery. CBS, 1987-94.
Ebert, Roger. “Enemy Mine.” rogerebert.com. Dec 20, 1985. Web. Jul 28, 2017.
“Enemy Mine”. Box Office Mojo. Web. Jul 28, 2017.
Muir, John Kenneth. „Cult Movie Review: Enemy Mine (1985).“ Reflections on Film and Television. Sep 11, 2009. Web. Jul 28, 2017.
Whyte, Nicholas “Enemy Mine, by Barry B. Longyear.” nicholaswhyte.info. Web. Jul 28, 2017
Ursprünglich erschienen als:
Schmeink, Lars. “Enemy Mine”. Aliens in Popular Culture. Hg. Michael M. Levy und Farah Mendlesohn. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2019. 114-16.