Louis Gossett Jr. was my favorite actor for a while. Not Harrison Ford, not Tom Cruise, but the guy from Iron Eagle! I was 11 years old when I saw Gossett as the gruff Air Force Colonel with a heart of gold, and he seemed the perfect role model. My dad was in the army, the film was about some teenagers in a flying club stealing jets to fly off to rescue hostages in the middle east, and it all just seemed so cool and relevant that Iron Eagle immediately jumped to the top of my favorite movie list. Shortly after Iron Eagle, I convinced my dad to take me to see Enemy Mine based largely on the fact that Louis Gossett Jr. was in it.
I remember three things about Enemy Mine that made it a turning point film for me in my young life as a cinephile:
- The Pepsi Can – I’d never seen a sci-fi film that tried to tie itself to our reality in any way. Aliens were aliens. Humans with spaceships didn’t come from Earth, or if they did, it wasn’t our Earth. My view of sci-fi was based entirely on the overwhelming influence of George Lucas’ space opera. But that shot in Enemy Mine of a futuristic Pepsi can lying in the rocks was a revelation. It meant that what we were watching was not just a fantasy like Star Wars, it was a possible future reality. I could see myself and my world up on the screen in a blaze of space suits, rocket ships, and strange asexual aliens. Suddenly all of the weight of the real world became a part of the film and from then on, it seemed much bigger to me than anything I had seen before.
- The Message – Remember now that I was 11 when I saw this (my dad was actually reluctant to take me since it was a PG-13 movie,) but when I say that the message of racial unity hit me harder from Enemy Mine than from any lesson in a book until then, I mean it. That’s what good art is capable of. We might look at Enemy Mine’s metaphor for racism as clumsy and heavy handed as adults, but the film captured my 11 year old brain with an entertaining space tale of racism, slavery, injustice, and ultimately the will to overcome all of that. That final scene where Zammis had to go before his elders had me all choked up even as a kid, and it still gets me to this day.
- Louis Gossett Jr. – Enemy Mine marked the first time that I had ever recognized the actor in a mask playing an alien. Star Wars was full of people in alien costumes, and Star Trek was full of aliens that just looked like people with paint or rubber pieces stuck to their faces, but here was an actor whose voice I recognized, whose lips and teeth I could make out underneath the makeup, and for the first time I understood acting. I had known that actors were pretending and that they were real people here on earth in real life, but seeing two films with the same actor playing two wildly different roles within a month of each other really drove the point home. I finally understood a little about the craft.
I don’t remember much of my dad’s reaction to the film which means he probably didn’t think much of it. I remember the movies he got fired up about or that he hated, but this was neither. As I left the theater I was filled with a deep excitement. I like the film for the space ships and the fantasy, but for the first time I felt like I had somehow graduated beyond the kiddie stuff of Wookies and robot cowboys. There was stuff in the story and in the meaning to Enemy Mine that I liked, too.
I still find the film touching and I don’t know why it isn’t better remembered. It’s got Brion James playing the kind of villain he’s made a career on. It was Wolfgang Peterson’s follow up after Das Boot and The Neverending Story. Dennis Quaid does a nice job going from a loathsome jerk to a rootable hero. And Louis Gossett Jr. does some really amazing work under that fantastic makeup. He emotes more than most aliens and more than a lot of humans in sci-fi movies! For a flick about space pilots stranded on an alien planet–it’s got a lot going for it. Now I need to find a Blu-Ray.