Mutant Popcorn #4

Nick Lowe

Enemy Mine

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – Enemy Mine and The Clan of the Cave Bear – appeared first in Interzone #16 (Summer 1986).

I will be frank and admit that Barry Longyear is not a name I would have expected to see written in lights. Only by a supreme act of self-denial could any sensitive reader forget the opening of the award-winning 1979 novella ‘Enemy Mine’, which did so much for its emerging author’s reputation:

The Dracon’s three-fingered hands flexed. In the thing’s yellow eyes I could read the desire to either have those fingers around a weapon or my throat. As I flexed my own fingers, I knew it read the same in my eyes.

Irkmaan!’ the thing spat.

‘You piece of Drac slime.’

But here, seven years on, is Enemy Mine, a hugely expensive international production that arrives here at last an ominous year after its unhappy demise at the US box office. The significance of this event, which far outweighs the film’s own merits, is simply this: Enemy Mine is the latest, and perhaps the last, in a vanishing line, the first picture in a decade to be based on a story from a science fiction magazine. (Teaser for buffs: what was the last? Why doesn’t Re-Animator count?)

Looking back at Longyear’s novella, it’s hard to see why this particular item should have been singled out from decades of low-circulation ephemera for hundreds of talented people to spend months of their lives and tens of millions of dollars turning it into an indifferent motion picture. Perhaps the answer lies in its very familiarity: an unconcealedly derivative hybrid of desert island yarn, Roots ripoff, and that old WWI chestnut about the jingoistic Tommy and the lone Hun thrown together in no-man’s-land to bury their enmities in the common need to survive. It’s a difficult story to dislike, despite or even because of its artless pulp prose and bland liberal message; but though quite touching in a goofy sort of way, it’s hardly the sort of material you can just point a camera at and make instant box-office history. And in fact the end product reworks the story with an insouciant freedom that clearly betrays a basic contempt for its source. It’s not like Dune; it’s not as if it’s been read by more than a handful of spotty eccentrics, so nobody’s going to clamour if you change the setting and substitute a nonsensically different second half. Goodness knows I don’t object to a little creative rehandling, but the screenplay of Enemy Mine shows so little awareness of the qualities that made the property worth acquiring in the first place that its failure seems almost guaranteed.

Well, out of the skies above desert planet Fyrine IV hurtle interstellar dogfighters Jeriba Shigan (Lou Gossett, Jr.) and Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid, ugh), locked in the life-and-death combat of man against evil slimy lizard bent on universal domination. They crash together on the planet’s bleak surface, inhabited only by radio-controlled tortoises and tentacles on strings, and necessity thrusts them into an uneasy mutual dependence that grows by degrees to conquer their xenophobic conditioning in a devoted, if soldierly, friendship. In due time Jerry (sic) has a happy event (no no, what are you thinking, he’s hermaphroditic) and croaks, leaving Will uncle to a little bundle of reptilian joy called Zammy. Fans of V will already know that infant geckoids mature from gelatine-covered puppet to adolescent actor with gratifying speed, and soon Zammy is being kidnapped by space slavers and Will, rescued by the Terran navy, has to go back and find him. Can he succeed, with time, Brion James, and the entire US spacefleet against him? Do chickens peck corn?

The basic problem here is the gargling. True, the pace of the first half is draggy, the production designs uninspired, and Wolfgang Petersen’s lumbering direction is if anything worse than in The Neverending Story. Longyear’s tidewracked desert island (rejected as ‘too earthlike’) has become a barren volcanic stormworld of singular visual uninterest whose locations are all too obviously filter shots of Lanzarote. But the point where the film’s central ambitions fall down is the aliens. No matter how inventive and elastic the makeup, no matter how carefully Gossett tries to move and emote like a non-human, there’s never any doubt that what we’re watching is a black actor in a rubber suit, and that his eerie inhuman voice is simply that actor gargling. What can have been the emotions of Fox executives who sat through the first screening of the uplifting final scene, where Zammy is ceremonially received on his homeworld to a soundtrack of massed male-voice gargling? Did they grin a rictus smile and congratulate the producer with a handshake like fresh-caught mackerel? Did they retire each in awful silence to his office, to sit past midnight in a pool of desklight with locked spine, ashen face, and a bottle of Cutty Sark clutched in a death grip? I feel sorry for Enemy Mine, bravely trying to build a space adventure movie around a cast of two and a closely-observed emotional bond between members of alien species. But the final attempt is so flawed by compromise and sheer misjudgment that it might have been better not to try. The only way I can see the costs recouping would be by releasing a soundtrack single of Mr Gossett’s gargling version of ‘The Midnight Special’. Will we really still be singing Creedence Clearwater in 2092? Only if 20th-Century Fox take action now…

By contrast, the summer’s other major fantasy screen adaptation has to contend with the biggest-selling sf novel of all time, though one little read or even acknowledged by genre readers. The Clan of the Cave Bear comes, of course, from Jean M. Auel’s shaggy loincloth-ripper about a Cro-Magnon girl reared by a tribe of telepathic Neanderthals. Like ‘Enemy Mine’, it’s unashamedly recycled material: a shrewd confection of The Inheritors thrown together into the pot and boiled to a pulp with the timeless adolescent fantasy of the ugly duckling who grows up to be a slan. But unlike ‘Enemy Mine’, it’s a property whose integrity is jealously valued not only by its rich and protective author (and her lawyers) but by millions of devoted readers the world over. Not surprisingly, the screen treatment is slavishly respectful, with only modest telescoping of the sprawling plot and a discreetly improved ending. Even so, the proprietary Ms Auel (and her lawyers) are reportedly none too happy with the result. I can’t imagine why, unless it’s the occasional touches of quiet wit in John Sayles’ script that hint perhaps too boldly at the fundamental silliness of the material.

Daryl Hannah (a rather obvious bit of casting) is the tall, blond, nordic Ayla growing up among the squat, swarthy, and clearly degenerate Clan people. It soon becomes evident she’s a forerunner of the master race by reason of her superior arithmetic ability and dawning feminist consciousness, and we follow her progress through the usual cursus of Pleistocene life-crises as she masters hunting, medicine, and motherhood with equal and unsettling aptitude, to the indignation of the lowbrow chaps. At last the tension between her adoptive people and her own higher evolutionary destiny breaks out in open confrontation, and she strides off to seek her own kind in five projected sequels of escalating direness. (Out in the written world, she’s only just found them in volume three, but mercifully nobody with a sapiens sapiens brain could conceive of filming the sequels.)

Simply as entertainment, this magnificent claptrap is hard to beat: a searing tale of strong, primitive emotions threaded cheerfully together by strong, primitive plotting. Sonorous bass rhythms boom out over dankly epic hillscapes, and behind their walls of beetling makeup the support players ham up something rotten. Ms Hannah, with her incongruous preppy cheekbones and archly animalian performance, survives her role rather well, and at a brisk 99 minutes the screenplay laudably resists the temptation to ponderous grandeurs of scale. Sublimely ridiculous, it’s an immeasurable upgrade on the novel, and shameless enough to disarm suspicion of its dodgy anthropology and distasteful racial subtexts.

All the same, it’s just as well the film interpretation opts for high risibility, because as a speculative drama on human origins it’s just an embarrassment. To a point, tradition is to blame: scarcely anything of the complexities of postwar anthropology, palaeo- and social, has yet penetrated the Euro-American novel, and in English moreover there isn’t an established subgenre of hominid fiction to compare with that in Eastern Europe. As a result, popular film and fiction is still wickedly inept at the emic presentation of tribal societies, past or present, and one of the major achievements of sf is to have offered a natural shelter for the very few creditable essays at hard anthropological fiction. Even so, the majority have dealt with cultural clash, frequently using a convenient outsider for viewpoint, rather than with the day-to-day unfamiliarities of life in a complex alien culture.

Now, on the face of it, Clan of the Cave Bear is groundbreaking stuff. Auel’s Neanderthals are ugly, shit thick, and doomed to extinction, yet as their story unwinds they invite our empathy and even our affection. But to achieve this the scenario burdens them with a modern-human protagonist, stupendous psionic abilities, and a lingustic articulacy capable of complex, abstract speechifying over whole pages at a time. Sayles and director Michael Chapman do what they can to minimise these absurdities, playing down the racial-memory gimmick and of necessity pruning the rhetoric. Following the novel’s cue, dialogue (subtitled) is a combination of grunted substantives and gestural verbs; but the elaborate sign language has all too obviously been devised by an Ameslanist rather than a primatologist, and you don’t need to have sat through Quest for Fire to spot the difference. Communication, social and individual behaviour, even physical appearance have been quietly but ludicrously anachronised to make our tribal forebears more appealing. In short, these are tourist Neanderthals, colourful, photogenic, and sweetly primitive, and as anthropological sf Clan of the Cave Bear is just another tourist movie, as insulting to the imagination as Out of Africa is insulting to history.

Two pictures, then, that purport to take us under the skin of an alien culture, and only manage to reinforce in practice the racial partitions they seek in principle to demolish. Why is the Terran spacefleet a century hence piloted by white American males? Why are the aliens played by negroids? Why should the enigmas of recent human ancestry be presented in the terms of a crude myth of Aryan supremacy? Science fiction may be no more than a form of semiological tourism, but at least the written genre has struggled hard of late to achieve a more sophisticated sense of the alien as alien. Cinema sf has a lot of catching up; far from advancing the dawn of universal fellowship, it’s just another shot in the foot for Hollywood liberalism.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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