Enemy Mine
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Written by Edward Khmara; story by Barry Longyear
Starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr.
108 minutes, 20th Century Fox, 1985.

***

Lo and behold — before there was Avatar, there was Enemy Mine! Another sci-fi movie with stupidly up-front PC messages about the holiness and wisdom of the simple life, the dumb prejudices of ethnocentrism, the malleability of belief given an individual’s social context, the horrible guilt of (predominantly white) colonialism, the importance of friendship in times of hardship, and so it goes. A worthy spectacle, but perhaps no modern treat for the masses — it doesn’t make them feel like precious little cyber-gemstones. It isn’t a lazy popcorn fest, but a substantial “B-movie”, with some ironic but endearing qualities.

Is the irony present here intentional? Probably not. It’s a distinctly mid-80s film, with references to classic sci-fi (gauche painting backgrounds and foam meteorite landscapes) and floats an over-the-top PC social message, not-so-subtly hidden, a few years before it was edgy and hip to do so. The Dracs are a stand-in for the various peoples European colonialists have exploited over the years.

The Dracs are a more interesting group than the blue freaks of Avatar. And unlike the obsessive idealized moral purity of Avatar‘s blue losers vs. the one-sided affair of black-hearted capitalism and machines (why does Cameron claim to side with the blue people if he’s very obviously an ambassador of the technology lovers?), the Dracs and the humans in Enemy Mine are subject to the typical territorial/resource squabble of all warring peoples and ethnic groups, with their shared wrongs and misperceived intentions.

The problem with Avatar‘s creatures is that they were too obvious and the played-out fantasy of the turncoat-white-guy shagging foreign babes was far too gag-inducing. I mean, if the dude couldn’t fuck the blue girl, was he still going to convert? That’s the most important question that the movie failed to address properly — except when the toy villain military honcho (pretty realistic despite fakeness) said Jake Sully converted because he got a piece of tail. Avatar replaced the visual sexual love interest with one engaged by our intentionally gradual acclimation to the blue raspberry people (we don’t know anything about the backgrounds of the people in the contracting companies, military, etc.), the sexual ties of which we still were supposed to identify with, and thus love the blue people for. It’s the crowd-shaker, the cheap-shot at the heart of the masses.

But fuck that! Enemy Mine is about a more vivid, real kind of love, absent of any blatant sexual love interest, presented more clumsily (thus more realistically), and hence talks about more profound stuff. Cultures are exchanged; world-views are seen to be inconsequential. It’s a desert-island tale that deals with universal issues  — from a cosmic perspective. And it actually has some unnecessary gory action scenes, giving it several extra points. The funny thing is that, also qualitatively similarly to Avatar, Enemy Mine has a really boring shitty script — laughably terrible. But it’s as if the script is hiding and conveying the ethos of the tale, whereas in Avatar the script is not hiding anything, it’s just a default — like hypertext mark-up. Both scripts are somewhat lazy stand-ins for the interactions on-screen, but one movie has no interactions to actually transmit, rendering the dialog to be pure podium puke, much as what you’d find miserably attempts to pass for dialog in Ayn Rand novels.

But even if it’s unintentionally badly written, Enemy Mine has homage and nostalgia going for it — as well as some outstanding alien costume design (the centerpiece of the film, really). Classic sci-fi films, B-movies of the mid-20th century were poorly written, acted and presented, and then vividly otherized alien species — the inverse of the zombie commentaries of Romero. Later Star Trek toyed with these ideas, and attempted to inculcate the audience into empathy for disgusting foreign species or beings, and then it was Mystery Science Theater 3000 which reinvigorated and enshrined in our hearts the crappy films of the of ’50s (Gen X’ers breakin’ on baby-boomers). Enemy Mine pre-dates MST3K‘s attitude slightly, and actually fits into its two interactive camps: light-heartedly admiring, acknowledging and then mocking crappy sci-fi (and outdated, oblivious Americana) and yet also maintaining a tradition of unintentional irony.

One more thing: like Avatar, Enemy Mine goes on for too long and also ends in a stupid fight sequence that is unrealistic and probably unintentionally symbolic rather than tangibly violent.  Some things in the movie are poorly thought out and some of the human characters are one-dimensional later in the tale (and the white humans seem to have a lot of guilt here too). But who cares? The movie got soul. Avatar, on the other hand, was incredibly limited in subtlety and vision despite its size, the cost and amount of 3-D visual technology on display — all as if to announce that our imaginations are exponentially for sale and that film as a medium is about to sleep with the fishes.

@ Amazon
@ IMDb

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Avatar
Directed and written by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, etc.
2009, 20th Century Fox, 162 minutes.

***

The same storytelling plots and archetypes have been used and expanded upon for thousands of years. But does it matter that every story has been told or written if the current generation has never bothered to hear or read them? The narrative cliches here are common to the legacy of storytelling and Hollywood film structure, and furthermore are delivered without any subtlety whatsoever. Yet the narrative cliches are not as typically distracting or draining simply because the medium they’re being presented in is being dramatically altered visually. The awkward cliches are rendered painless by the visual narcotics, which gleam with an illusion almost strong enough to engage audience interaction and inviting questions about the evolution of media technology. Just as the play is an expansion upon the epic, the printed novel an expansion upon the play, the mainstream film an evolution of the novel, and video games are an expansion of the film medium, with this movie screening (let’s call it “movie +”) we have interactive suggestions of transhuman experience and real avatar generation (virtual reality).

James Cameron does not seem to have anything intentionally sophisticated to say. Most of Cameron’s directorial work amounts to family action-adventure, with 1-D caricature villains and cutting-edge high-budget visual effects. It worked best in Aliens, but became more obvious with each subsequent outing that he was the poor man’s Ridley Scott. Here Avatar‘s social commentaries are so overt and blatant they honestly can do no more than charm the reasonably mature viewer. Real-life 1-D people may find the movie and characters offensive (and so they are, if perceived as a literal reflection of real 3-D modern society) but the charm actually makes the message more resonant, in the same sense that the unintentional irony or camp of B-movie action creates a kind of interactive relationship with the audience. It’s an interesting effect in conjunction with the 3-D glasses and the impressive visuals.

So the layering is such that we have cutting edge special effects — effective enough to render human actors (avatars) unnecessary, replacing our human lead roles with computer computer effects, right in front of our eyes. It’s actually a subtle avatar transformation for us too, acclimating us to the concept of non-humanoid protagonists whom we emotionally will relate to (indeed, the female love interest is an alien with a tail, and save for the real human being Michelle Rodriguez there is an admirable lack of female eye-candy for a PG-13 blockbuster). On top of that, the optimum screening presentation uses 3-D goggles. As far as I can tell, this is unprecedented in a full-length mainstream blockbuster (Spy Kids 3-D and My Bloody Valentine, while cool, weren’t as successful nor optimized for the medium), part of a prop for the movie industry that is currently faltering due to modern networking technology and P2P networks, streaming HD media and high-quality home theaters.

Traditional science fiction, as I’ve said before, seems almost obsolete (both irrelevant and surpassed), but we do not pursue the space technology (or just don’t have the resources. See: global warming, oil prices, military spending, the war on drugs, etc.) that is the apple of our fictional eye. Instead, as my friend pointed out, the developed world has a common modern technology rich in data-mining and digital networking fueled by a mass-consumer market society, one thriving by selling people new stories about themselves. The emotional selling-point of mass-marketing new technology is that it gives the consumer a false, concrete sense of sophistication; an alluring impression of being able to buy class. But gadgetry is in fact, mostly junk.

Anyway, without the mindgames of the whole avatar/3-D/technology situation, you have an amalgamation of the following plots and films, most of which involve the traveling young Caucasian male undergoing an identity crisis:

Day of the Dead is worth mentioning because I haven’t seen anyone else draw the connection. It discusses the same direct “science vs. military” attitudes (liberal vs. conservative, pacifist vs. aggressor) within a cavernous human outpost surrounded by zombies, by way of anthropologists who want to study the same subjects the soldiers want to destroy. And like Avatar, it beholds a special effects spectacle above and beyond any of its contemporaries (Day of the Dead is still unique in this sense, using supremely fine make-up effects and being supremely R+ gorey). But Day of the Dead was done on a budget absolutely microscopic compared to the average Hollywood movie, let alone Avatar, the 2009 movie industry’s Chinese Democracy.

So actually a stupid movie, but kind of interesting, if not intentionally so, because it seeks to sell a complete visceral visual experience, but is still just 3-D CG (demi-god VR status). But it’s really gorgeous and (ironically?) features humans with alien avatars, which are CG creatures, thereby pointing out incidentally that CG effects are our avatars. Then the movie was so loaded with cliches but presented them so casually that you didn’t really focus on them — they just flowed naturally. And it occurred to me that narrative cliches almost don’t matter, if they take place in a new medium. The audience was tricked into being receptive to the experience before it even started and lost their critical assessment of the dialog, story, etc. which would be pig-slop on a tiny, non-3D screening.

*sigh* I know, sorry, this review was so obvious and unnecessary, but after watching the movie I felt compelled to practice my humanoid writing skills. Now I’m going to go watch some humanoid porn, just to make sure I am, uh… attracted to the right species and then smoke some weed cigarettes, to make sure I’m still a part of the beautiful conglomerate circle of consumer life.

@ IMDb