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Enemy Mine is one of my all-time favorite films. In my opinion, it’s Wolfgang Petersen’s best film period. I think I first saw it when I was in high school but I probably saw bits and pieces long before that. It was a film that would come on TV every so often and I’d catch it and watch it from wherever it was to the end. I think I’ve seen the whole movie start to finish maybe twice before this latest time, which inspired me to write this piece about it.

When you think about a kid watching this closer to when it came out (1985, a year before I was born), it’s easy to see why it would have an impact. It’s a survival story set on a well-realized alien world. It feels a little like an extended Star Trek episode, like that one where they keep saying “Shaka, When the Walls Fell”. I’m sure this was even an inspiration for that episode, which is a classic. It also has a little Star Wars as well, with some whiz bang action and gadgets and lived-in approach to design. There are interesting creatures, danger, discovery, and interesting life lessons along the way.

As an adult, Enemy Mine feels rich with meaning way beyond its aesthetics. I think I’ve seen this film with a different lens every time I’ve sat down with it and it’s always had something to offer. That, to me, is the hallmark of a great film, especially one that trades in ideas.

So I think I’m going to talk about that. The different ways you can read this film and its relevance to problems and ideas we’re still struggling with. This might feel a little different than one of my usual reviews, but more in step with the kind of writing I’ve been doing lately. Stick around if that sounds good.

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At some point in the future, humans have begun colonizing other worlds and have encountered another intelligent species called the Drac. They end up in conflict, fighting a territorial war with little understanding of their enemies. Dennis Quaid plays Willis Davidge, a young fighter pilot with a bit of a hot-headed streak, and who crash-lands on an uncharted world during an engagement with Drac ships. He is not alone. Another ship crash-lands, this one a Drac ship, leaving a sole survivor from each species stuck on a planet they can’t escape. The Drac is called Sheegan, or Jerry as Davidge later nicknames him, and is played under an immense amount of makeup and effects by Louis Gossett Jr. His performance is one of many compelling reasons to see this as Gossett Jr. imbues Sheegan with character, humanity, and tics that feel familiar or very alien. It might be the best performance of its kind.

The two start as enemies but slowly become allies, then friends, then perhaps more. As their relationship develops, they overcome challenges to their survival and learn more about each other. Eventually, Sheegan dies and leaves behind a baby for Davidge to raise alone. Over of the course of three years (which feels like more in the context of the film), we watch Davidge basically grow up and reach past his prejudices and the limitations of his previous worldview. A worldview that is really fucking familiar and incredibly relevant today. One that is represented best by the film’s real enemy: humans who can’t change like Davidge changes. Along the way, there are other challenges especially when the baby, Zammis, starts to grow up and ask questions about themselves.

Now that we’ve caught up on plot, let’s split the discussion into sections.

Language

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The two survivors can’t talk to each other at first, but eventually learn each others’ languages. Language is closely linked to culture and world-view, both of which are revealed and challenged through the sheer act of figuring out how to arrive at common understandings using nothing but gesture and mouth-sounds. As individuals and representatives of their species, Davidge and Sheegan use even the same language in different ways. For example, Sheegan’s English is literal and formal, tropes that are often assigned to wise, honorable, or ancient cultures. Davidge’s use of Drac is furtive, tacked on to his English as the situation demands. This is best shown as he first starts learning words, sprinkling them in his sentences like punctuation. This is also a trope, one I associate with English-speakers but especially Americans. This is probably a cinematic trope in origin, though, something that is used as a shorthand to show a person who has adapted (sort of) and is able to, at least in their own minds, get their meaning across through a combination of tools: tone, gesture, and pidgin dialects. It’s supposed to make a character come off as either wordly/connected (usually colonialist narratives) or slightly ridiculous (usually more critical).

But Enemy Mine takes this all a step further. Language becomes a key point of commonality between Davidge and Sheegan because of the importance of Drac ritual and what the growing bond between them means for Davidge’s role in it.

Worldview

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One of the means for Davidge to learn Drac is a holy book that Sheegan carries around as a pendant. The book contains proverbs and philosophical principles that are familiar to us as well as Davidge. “I’ve heard all this before, in the human Talmon,” he says. And Sheegan, who is wiser in many ways, says “of course you have.” It’s no suprise to Sheegan at any point that there are universal “shapes” for both species. It’s only ever a surprise to Davidge, who so easily projects the certainties that still plague humans even and especially when dealing with our own kind. Let alone imaginary space aliens.

The big differences between humans and Drac wind up feeling like policy more than ideology, with the humans blithely expanding into the stars and the Drac trying to counter them. It’s the kind of territorial, colonial dispute that has occurred throughout recorded history and both sides were always human. In Enemy Mine, part of the point is that this conflict is fundamentally the same. The Drac may not be human, but they are people and the ways the human perspective reacts to that is a cornerstone of the film’s narrative and themes.

Drac care about honesty, integrity, love, legacy, history, and continuation of their own unique interaction with the universe. That has been shared by all enemies humans have had and is likely to continue if we encounter intelligent life that is recognizable as such. There’s always the possibility that aliens will be so unlike us that comparisons will be confusing or pointless, but this is not why Enemy Mine was made. As a story, it’s meant to reflect something about us by exaggerating the parameters. Instead of another group of humans, it’s the Drac. Instead of the open seas, it’s space. The parallels should be easy to spot.

Religion

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The Drac religion is something of a symbolic hodgepodge of recognizable human religions. We don’t get much of it, but here’s what we know: they have a singular teacher or prophet whose words are inscribed in a text, they take the text and prayer very seriously, their beliefs are not dissimilar from universal moral positions we would commonly see expressed in Christianity. But really, the religion most closely resembles Islam in terms of pop culture depiction.

This is interesting for a lot of reasons that are kinda way out into the weeds of changing attitudes toward religion and especially Islam from the 80s to now. I won’t get into that too much as its not really in the scope of this piece. I want to point out that this is a kind of graceful and humane way to treat religion, especially in a science fiction film, and that this has some bearing on us now as we seem to oscillate between a smug secularism and a rabid religious fervor. The cultural messages we get now are sort of all or nothing, where Enemy Mine is comfortable (maybe in a distinctly 80s way) with acknowledging religions and their connection to what makes us human. Which is all you really need. Enemy Mine is not preachy or religious, though some might apply a Christian or Muslim lens to it in much the same way as I’m applying other lenses. I’d love to see that, honestly.

The point isn’t that Drac have some special connection to the spirit or the truth, it’s that this connection is shared across the species. Like it’s shared across all humans. It’s about the “human condition”, which in this film is really more of a “sophontic condition”

Identity

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One of the ways Enemy Mine can be analysed is as a piece of (probably unintentional) queer cinema. The marketing describes the relationship of Sheegan and Davidge as brotherhood, but this is complicated by the film’s events and some specific aspects of Drac physiology and (we can infer) culture.

The Drac are a mono-gender species, as far as we know, and do a form of asexual reproduction. Though it’s possible that Zammis is a kind of clone of Sheegan, just as they would be a clone of their forebears, the film (and its characters) treat Zammis as a distinct being so that’s the assumption I’m going to make. For now, these are things from the movie’s context that are worth knowing to help me make my point.

For Sheegan, sex cannot be a part of their relationship to Davidge but I’d argue that their relationship still takes on all the trappings of a pseudo-romantic one, one that is more easily understood now as we become aware of and explore asexual identities. There’s all the bickering, the restrained moments of affection and regard, the things said and unsaid, the resistance to needing someone you’re not sure you can trust. It’s all in there. Don’t believe me? Watch the scene where Davidge is preparing to set off to explore on his own and the way they tip-toe around the idea of parting company for the first time in probably a year.

Though Sheegan seems to have created their infant by themselves, explaining that it just happens to all Drac at some point, the child is very much a product of a union between Davidge and Sheegan. The birth claims Sheegan’s life but before it can, Sheegan extracts promises from Davidge that feel very much like the kind of thing a dying husband might say to their partner about the fate of their child. As Zammis grows, Davidge treats them with all the clumsy but unconditional love that we might expect from an emotionally stunted, recovering asshole — an 80’s dad by any other name.

Oppression

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In the somewhat disjointed third act, Zammis and Davidge are separated by scavengers who have begun to use Drac slave labour to exploit the planet. Davidge discovered them during his journey but lied to Sheegan because he understood what kind of people they were. People that are worse than even he once was. They don’t just kill Drac like Davidge’s cohort, they enslave them and zip around where they’re not allowed to plunder what they can. They are probably¬† a big part of the reason why the Drac declared war on humans.

Davidge was merely an instrument of force for the colonialist human state, but these scavengers are the animus behind that state: the unleashed consumption, plunder, exploitation, and dehumanization (for lack of a more general word, which we sorely need). We should see more easy parallels between this uneasy relationship between the official arm of the human state and the unofficial, “overlooked” settler/colonial mindset exhibited by the scavengers.

The historical (and current) parallels are again unmistakable. If you want an historical example, this is not very different from Western Expansion in North America. Early state powers like the British crown or the young United States were unable or unwilling to control settlers pushing ever westward past territorial lines, treaty boundaries, etc. This put any central government in a tough spot. One choice was defending their people from reprisals, often violent, from the indigenous population or Europeans who got there before the latest wave of settlement. This was often what happened. Please see all the wars. The other choice was to prevent the expansion under the aegis of law and maintain various treaties, agreements, and alliances with sovereign peoples and nations that had a territorial claim. We know how this turned out. Even when governments tried to respect their own laws, it was difficult to stop westward expansion. It was also convenient to encourage it covertly while condemning it overtly. Which was also done.

In Enemy Mine, the scavengers are an inconvenience to the human state but they are an existential threat to peace between the species (represented by the characters in the film) and the long-term sustainability of expansion into space. The “get there first and loot” mindset is persistent even now, echoed in media as diverse as songs and video games. Science Fiction is often fertile ground for challenging societal norms but it’s sort of unexpected to have anti-colonial messages in an 80s film. Other way around a lot of the time.

Anyway, this is also why it matters that Davidge helps overthrow the scavengers. That he breaks the law of his own faction to rush back to the planet for Zammis. It matters that the humans who show up chasing him don’t immediately take the human side, especially when they see how the Drac are treated. Davidge also doesn’t single-handedly win the revolt or even lead it. The Drac, partly inspired by his loyalty to Zammis, rise up for themselves. The human soldiers stand by and seem impressed. Later, we learn that Davidge went to Dracon and stood with Zammis like Sheegan wanted. That Davidge is added to the legacy and history of Drac family lineage, an important cultural tradition.

The reason all this matters is that it symbolizes the overthrow of oppression and models some aspects of reconciliation and reparation. It’s unclear whether Davidge and Sheegan’s chance encounter and lasting bond led or contributed to a peace agreement between the Drac and humans. But it doesn’t really matter, the point is to acknowledge that they are people and peace is possible because of that simple fact.

Or, as Sheegan says, “truth is truth”. They say that the problem is that humans, Davidge in particular, haven’t yet understood how Drac express that truth. The “yet” is the key part. Sheegan understands from Davidge that humans may one day see Drac differently, as they have begun to see humans differently. It’s an expression of hope for the future, that we won’t always be so stupid and blind, which is Enemy Mine‘s most relevant message for today.