Dennis Quaid’s Best Movie Is A Criminally Underrated Sci-Fi Masterpiece

The 1985 sci-fi classic Enemy Mine deserves a lot more attention.

By Michileen Martin | Published

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Oscar-nominated director Wolfgang Petersen passed away just last month, leaving behind some unforgettable films. He was mostly known for action movies with a military bent–e.g. In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, and the classic Das Boot. But he certainly had his exceptions. There was the heartbreaking and glorious children’s fantasy flick The NeverEnding Story (RIP Artax), and then there was the less well regarded 1985 sci-fi drama Enemy Mine. Starring Dennis Quaid as the hotshot space pilot Will Davidge and Louis Gossett Jr. as the reptilian Jerry, Enemy Mine didn’t impress critics and it didn’t make any money; and I think that’s a crime.

Louis Gossett Jr. and Dennis Quaid in Enemy Mine (1985)

In the latter half of the 21st century, the promise of galactic colonization helps humanity unite. But before you break out the champagne, thinking we’ve realized the Star Trek dreams of Gene Roddenberry, Enemy Mine predicts our push into space creates new rivalries. When we first meet Dennis Quaid’s Davidge, he’s piloting a ship in a fight against the Dracs: reptilian aliens who aren’t appreciative of humanity’s expansion. Davidge is cheerful enough as he’s blasting Dracs to pieces–happily chatting with his co-pilot Wooster (Lance Kerwin)–but once one of his human colleagues gets taken out, Davidge’s rage takes over. Crippling the offending Drac’s ship isn’t enough. He follows the ship into the orbit of a nearby planet, where both he and the Drac he shot down wind up stranded. Wooster dies shortly after the crash.

In spite of Dennis Quaid’s Davidge being stuck on an unfamiliar planet; having neither food, water, nor a way to contact human forces for rescue, the pilot’s first priority is revenge. He tracks down the Drac he saw eject on the way down and goes to great pains to try, and fail, to murder him. While his real name is Jeriba Shigan, we come to know Louis Gossett Jr.’s character as Jerry–the nickname Davidge gives his would-be victim, who soon becomes his captor. Everything Davidge sees and learns about Jerry disgusts him, but as it becomes clear that no rescue is coming, the two have to learn to work together to survive.

Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. in Enemy Mine (1985)

Dennis Quaid is the top-billed star of Enemy Mine, but the best reason to see the film is watching Louis Gossett Jr. completely lose himself in the part of the reptilian Jerry. From the way the Drac reacts physically to the arrival of rain, to the way he walks, to his adorable laughter; it’s clear Gossett spent a long time creating Jerry from the ground up. In spite of at times being just as hostile as his human counterpart, he is consistently not only the most layered character in the Enemy Mine, but by leaps and bounds the most likable.

Now, there are some nineties and even eighties sci-fi films like Predator and The Terminator where the special effects still hold up. And in many areas, no, Enemy Mine is most certainly not one of those movies. In the early starship battle, you can practically see strings. But there are two areas in which the FX certainly do hold up–the creature design and the makeup of the Dracs. The hard-shelled beasts and the underground terrors of the film are utterly believable and–except for the space between Gossett’s mask and his mouth being clearly visible the entire film–Jerry’s makeup is incredible.

Louis Gossett Jr. in Enemy Mine (1985)

I don’t want to spoil the entire movie, but you think the movie is going one way, and then it takes a hard left turn into something else entirely. It’s possible that has a lot to do with why the Dennis Quaid starrer failed so terribly when it was released. Audiences expected one thing and got something completely different; sometimes that’s a great thing, and sometimes it’s something that can only be appreciated after years have passed.

These days, Enemy Mine has taken on a new relevance. One of the things that bother’s Dennis Quaid’s character about Jerry and the other Dracs at first is that they are genderless; they reproduce on their own, fertilizing themselves. In a world that is increasingly challenging notions of gender, Enemy Mine offers what might be an illuminating take on the subject.

Bumper Robinson and Dennis Quaid in Enemy Mine (1985)

As long as you can forgive some of the visual limitations of its time, Enemy Mine is a sci-fi classic that deserves another look. The film was directed by the late Wolfgang Petersen from a screenplay by Edward Khmara (Ladyhawke), based on the 1979 novella of the same name by Barry B. Longyear. The film stars Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett Jr., Brion James, Richard Marcus, Carolyn McCormick, and Bumper Robinson. According to JustWatch, Enemy Mine is currently streaming on Starz.