Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Its own worst enemy

This is the fourth in my series called Double Jeopardy, in which I reexamine movies that I liked more than other people, to see if they hold up. It runs on Tuesdays.

In my first three weeks of the Double Jeopardy series, I ended up feeling about as positively toward the movie in question as I had after my first viewing. That made me wonder if I'd seen them too recently to have had much of a change of heart.

So this week I decided to dig way, way back -- something I hadn't seen since the 1980s. But I may have had to stretch the definition of this series to do it.

See, I thought most people felt kind of positively about Wolfgang Petersen's Enemy Mine, as I did. The website I write for told me otherwise. On the website, I noticed that the movie was assigned only two stars out of a possible five. Later, I discovered that it was one of those instances where the reviewer wrote a review that was out of synch with the star rating -- a consequence of the star rating having been assigned at a different time from when the review was written, and by someone other than the person who ultimately reviewed it. But I didn't read the positive review until later, and added Enemy Mine to my hit list based on that two-star assessment.

As it turns out, it was a good choice for this series. Enemy Mine is a lot cheesier than I remembered it. And it starts out on a very wrong foot.

Now, 1985 was no period of great achievement in special effects. But it was a full two years after Return of the Jedi, so I was expecting a modicum of sophistication in the opening spaceship battle between the humans and the Dracs. Uh uh. Super-imposed two-dimensional cardboard cutouts of spaceships swoop across the screen in perfect arcs, fixed at an equal distance from each other, in a way only possible if they are all part of a single graphic. They shoot light brite laser blasts at each other and erupt in the kind of flames you see grafted onto episodes of South Park (because that type of animation doesn't work for explosions). What's more, you're given only the flimsiest back story to comprehend these events, which can be summarized as "Humans hate Dracs and Dracs hate humans." The hammy yelling of Dennis Quaid makes the scene complete.

I like Dennis Quaid as an actor -- actually, I guess it's more that I think he would be a fun guy to hang out with, so therefore, I like him as an actor as well. But his hammy acting is a constant throughout the movie. When both he and the Drac, whom he calls Jerry, crash land on the planet, most of the story elements start to improve. But Quaid's acting isn't one of them. Quaid's Davidge sneaks up on the Drac crash site, where Jerry is enjoying some food by the fire. When Jerry plunges into the water for a swim, Quaid literally cackles like a maniacal villain, as Davidge gains the upper hand on his enemy. Wouldn't he be a lot more nervous, especially never having seen a Drac in person before, and not knowing what he/she (the Dracs are multi-gendered) might be capable of?

Enemy Mine proceeds as you would expect -- enemies become grudging allies, and then genuine friends, with a couple episodes of lingering mistrust thrown in to spice up the narrative. The developing friendship was what really got me when I was a kid. I was just the right age, with just the right brief history of seeing science fiction movies, to find it revolutionary that a human being would be able to forge a loving bond with an alien so grotesque as a Drac. That idea was certainly seen in numerous previous movies, if not actually, then at least metaphorically. But it was new to me, and I found it profound.

And how grotesque is that Drac? That's the thing I find interesting about Enemy Mine -- as bad as those toy spaceships at the beginning are, the makeup that turns Lou Gossett Jr. into a full-blown alien is that good. Just check out this picture of Jerry. Not only is the reptilian outer skin attached seamlessly, but just for effect, it has moving parts as well. Those small circular patches next to the sides of his mouth, and the veiny oblong shapes where his ears should be, both ebb in and out. Slightly easier, though still effective, is that when Jerry is seen from behind, he's got a partially exposed skull that is similar in appearance to the oblong ear-things. If Jerry had been just a Star Trek villain from the 1960s, basically a humanoid with green or blue skin, we wouldn't feel the sense of repulsion necessary to underscore the difference between humans and Dracs -- nor the sense of revelatory joy when we realize that these surface-level differences can be overcome. It should come as no surprise that Enemy Mine functions as an allegory for race relations on Earth, and an effective one, at that. It's probably no coincidence that Quaid is white and Gossett Jr. is black.

Adding to the effect is the Drac language, which involves a weird guttural trilling of the R sounds, making the species of alien all the more exotic and frightening. Gossett Jr.'s performance is soulful and understated, and it's clearly the best thing about the movie. How touched I was by Jerry was the clearest feeling that lingered with me from Enemy Mine.

Spoilers ahead ...

Once Jerry leaves the movie, the air goes back out of it again. Jerry's offspring, the little Drac named Zammis, is cute and all, but the third act goes to extremely obvious places. Zammis is captured by a bunch of marauding human pirates and made to work as a slave with other Dracs in their mining business. These reprehensible humans are led by Brion James, who played the replicant in the opening scene of Blade Runner, whose real battle with Quaid is to see who can chew the most scenery. The final 15 minutes of this movie contain some of the most perfunctory and poorly staged fight scenes you have ever seen, and involve Quaid running around screaming "Zammis!" repeatedly, looking for his surrogate son. You're still glad for the happy ending, but a little embarrassed about what it took to get there.

Even if it proceeds along somewhat predictable lines, and features certain conflicts that are there purely for the purposes of narrative structure, Enemy Mine has a good enough story that it should be better than it is overall. Unfortunately, the great makeup and the great performance by Lou Gossett Jr. are barely enough to overcome Quaid's acting and the terrible special effects.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, Enemy Mine: I said "barely," which means the movie does overcome its shortcomings. It's still valuable as an allegory, but it may have been better off, to me personally, as a fond memory, rather than something to be held under the microscope a second time.

1 comment:

Don Handsome said...

I always have confused Enemy Mine with Alien Nation in my memory. Both enjoy positive opinions that surely could (and perhaps would) be adjusted downward with a deeper look backwards on them...Thanks for reminding me that some things are better left as a "fond memory".