In the late 21st Century, the bilateral Terran Alliance, or BTA, is at war with reptilian humanoids called the Dracs. In a conflict between fighter spacecraft, Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) engages Drac pilot Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.) and both ships crash-land on a planet called Fyrine IV. For a time, they hunt each other viciously and eventually learn to cooperate to survive. Over the course of three years marooned on the planet, they save each other’s lives and become fast friends.
Davidge, exploring the planet, learns that it is occasionally visited by human miners called Scavengers, using Drac slaves for labour. He warns Jeriba, whom he calls Jerry, and discovers that the Drac, who reproduces asexually, is pregnant. To pass the time, they memorize each other’s ancestry. Jerry dies in childbirth, and Davidge swears to raise the child, Zammis (Bumper Robinson). It must be taken back to the Drac homeworld and Davidge as his “uncle” must recite his lineage.
A Scavenger ship arrives and Zammis is discovered. Davidge attacts the men and kills one but is gunned down. Later a BTA ship finds Savidge and returns him to his base. He awakes during his funeral, speaking Drac. He is reinstated, but not as a pilot, as his superiors think he might have defected. Unable to get help, he steals a fighter, finds the Scavenger ship and sneaks on board. He speaks to the Drac slaves in their own language. He fights the Scavengers, and the slaves revolt. Near the end, the BTA crew looking for him join in to defend the Drac. He takes Zammis to the Drac homeworld and the Shigan is recited before the Drac Council. His name is added to the litany to be recited for Zammis’s eventual child.
The film was a West German-American film directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by Edward Khamara based on a novella by Barry B. Longyear. It began production in Budapest in 1984, directed by Richard Loncraine and produced by Stephen Friedman of 20th Century Fox but was shut down for its bad quality after a while, then reshot by Petersen in Munich. It was a box-office failure, though a great success in the Soviet Union, the first Western science-fiction picture shown in Soviet theatres. Now it is something of a cult film, largely because of Louis Gossett’s charming and quirky performance.
Much of the Drac language was Russian recited backwards. It took four hours every day to apply Louis Gossett’s makeup. When he was a kid, he liked to talk while gargling saliva as a joke and used that as part of the Drac language. Fox released the movie despite their misgivings because they would have had to pay the actors anyway. Terry Gilliam was offered the directing job but did Brazil instead. The music was by Maurice Jarre. Peter Jurasik of Babylon Five fame appeared in some scenes that were not used. The studio put a mine in the film so the public would not be puzzled by the phrase Enemy Mine.