I saw this movie with my friend Scott Mead at a $1.50 triple feature about a year after it came out. (Really!) I’ve probably picked it up once or twice on cable since then, but not in more than 25 years. I thought it was really bland and boring, though it had one or two scenes that did jump out at me. On a lark, I decided to give it a shot, and lo and behold, I actualy kind of like it now.
In the 2080s humanity is at war with an alien species called the ‘Drac.’ Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid) is a hotshot fighter pilot who gets shot down on an uninhabited, hostile world. Quickly he meets up with Jeriba, a hotshot Drac fighter pilot who’s also shot down. Initially at each other’s throats, they quickly realize that their only chance to survive is to work together, and over the course of a year or two on the planet the two become friends (Though neither really wants to admit it). Davidge learns to speak Drac, “Jerry,” learns to speak English. Their adventures are not particularly adventurous.
Eventually Davidge discovers human scavengers are mining a location a few days walk away, and are using Drac as slave labor. Though he could likely sign on with them and escape, Davidge chooses to protect his friend. He heads back to their camp and tells him he found nothing. Jerry, meanwhile, has become spontaneously pregnant (later. We’ll talk about it later. Wait for the observations!). Something goes wrong, and Jerry dies in childbirth, leaving Davidge to raise the baby.
Drac grow fast, so Zamis – the child – goes from baby to something about the level of an eight year old in about a year or so. Learning that there are scavengers on the planet, and wanting to see others of his own kind, Zamis heads off, and is promptly captured and enslaved. Davidge tries to rescue him, is shot and left for dead.
Davidge is discovered and rescued by his own ship. As soon as he’s patched up, he steals a fighter, flies back to the planet, rescues Zamis, and then we flash forward several years to when Davidge fulfils a promise to Jerry by helping the kid be Bar Mitzvahed.
Despite its lordly $30 budget – which was huge by the standards of the day (Wrath of Khan cost $10 million, Empire Strikes Back cost $20 million) – this is a cheap looking movie. The sets are expansive, but bland and flimsy. The costumes are meh. The special effects would be pretty dowdy in a movie made in 1970. The Maurice Jarre soundtrack is…a soundtrack. With the exception of the football scene, it’s pretty uninspired. Most of this, I think, is due to it being a German production with an American cast. It’s a comparatively small country, and there just wasn’t much of a talent pool to make this glitzy and slick. It’s not that they’re incapable, it’s just that there’s probably more movie industry folks living and working in the city of Miami than there are in all Germany. That shows here.
The story is kind of timeless, and had this film been made in 1985 or 1965, it wouldn’t really have been any different, apart from the alien makeup not being as good. It’s a fairly low-key story. There’s only one dogfight, which is incompetently filmed (Seriously: They did it better on Battlestar Galactica seven years earlier for an insignificant fraction of the budget!), and that’s at the beginning. The rest of the film is essentially a character drama, and then there’s a mediocre fight sequence/set piece at the end. Basically, it’s not an actioner. It’s actually kind of a sweet little film, and that’s just not what audiences then – or now – are really looking for.
Still, you know what? It’s actually a pretty good movie. No, not ‘good.’ It’s ‘Nice.’
Quaid is a mediocre actor most of the time, and he’s mediocre here up until he gets shot down. From then on he gives a surprisingly solid performance as a basically decent guy who hates the alien he’s working with until his basic decency finally erodes his anger and racial prejudice. This is not an allegory for racism, by the way: his character has every reason to hate the Drac and the Drac have very valid reasons to hate humans. The fact that Davidge is, perhaps, not exceptionally smart is a nice touch, too, and prettyboy Quaid commits to the role, progressively getting more raggedy and bearded and longhaired and hermit-like as the story goes on. I also find it strangely engaging when he occasionally lapses in to his native Texan accent now and again.
His scenes of continued annoyance that Jerry is learning English faster than he’s learning Drac are pretty funny, as is his low-key condescension (“Hey, how about we open up a restaurant? I could ruin the food and you could scare the customers”). His fear of Jerry getting killed by the Scavengers is reserved, but obvious. His panic about Jerry possibly dying is appropriately fearful (“I’ll be alone here!”) The sequence where Jerry dies is genuinely moving. The scenes of him playing with the young Zamis are great – particularly the football scene – and the one where he has to explain to the kid why he looks nothing like him is similarly good. The bit where he’s learning to read the Drac bible (it’s the only book on the planet, and he’s bored) raised the hair on the back of my neck.
He reads a passage out loud, which sounds pretty much like something Jesus would say.
“I’ve heard this before, in the human scripture.”
“Of course. Truth is truth.”
Louis Gossett, Jr, really is a pretty great actor even if he has no clue how to choose a commercial film. Burried in about 20 pounds of latex, he is completely awesome as Jerry. He gets a lot of emotion out of a not-very-expressive face, and his twitch, reptilian manerisms are well done. Though we grow to accept him over the course of the film, he’s suitably creepy in the early scenes. He’s more laid back, and definitely smarter than Davidge. It’s unclear why he doesn’t kill the human when he has the chance early on, but I suspect it’s because he wants to use him as a slave. (Davidge is forced to do all the grunt work in the first act of the movie) His weird alien laughter is funny, as is him learning English profanities-first. His spasmodic not-at-all-human crying (No tears, convulsng head, weird body language) when he’s abandoned is not only believably alien, it’s also genuinely moving.
To quote Dr. Kyle, “As aliens go, this one is pretty alien.” The Drac are hermaphrodites. They are reptiles. They reproduce by parthenogenesis, and have no control over when it happens. They’ve got a seemingly-vestigial tail. They’ve got no nose, and twitchy little organs of some kind by the mouth. They tend to not move at all until something happens and then their reactions are too fast. Their language is guttural and involves lots of croaking and clicks. They only have three fingers, and it looks like six teeth. No nose. Tympanums for ears. They’re very well realized for a movie of this era.
One thing I really liked is the steadfast devotion to the nonsense alien language. The two characters can not understand each other at all at the start of the film. Now, in most movies we’d find a translator machine, or the alien would just coincidentally speak English for some reason. In this movie, however, we’re in the second act before they can really converse. It sounds tedious, and it might actually be (in 1986 I certainly thought it was) but this time out I liked it.
There is no mention in the film of what happened with the Drac war. Is it over? Is it going on? How did it end? Who won? Oddly, though the movie is (infrequently) narrated by Quaid, they abruptly switch to another narrator for the last 90 seconds.
This movie had a troubled production. About 45 minutes was filmed before the original director was fired, and they started over again with Wolfgang Petersen. None of that footage is in the film. In fact no one – not even Dennis Quaid – has ever seen it. You won’t see it here, either: The extras on this disc are limited to three – count ’em three – behind the scenes stills.
Once the film was done, the studio realized they had a bomb on their hands, and chopped about 22 minutes in order to cut their losses. (Shorter films = more showings per day = more money) This, too, has never been seen by anyone since Petersen turned in his director’s cut. Again, I’d love to see it; again I never will.
In the original novella by Barry Longyear (Which I’ve never read) I’m told that while Davidge was on the planet the war ended. He went back to earth and got a job translating old westerns into Drac. Then something happens with Zamis, and he’s off to rescue the kid. Now, obviously this movie never had anything like that in it, however something on that order could fit nicely in between the time Davvidge is rescued, and the time he goes AWOL.
In the film he’s rescued by his ship and leaves his ship two or three scenes later. I’m assuming that most of the stuff that got cut was from the ship, as his exit seems very abrupt. Add to this that the ship sets are pretty huge and get about five minutes of screen time. Clearly something substantial was chopped here, and explained away with a very forced voiceover. I think there was some denouement chopped from the point between when Zamis is rescued, and the Alien Bar Mitzvah scene, given that the time is glossed over by narration, and it’s a different narrator than they used in the rest of the film. Clearly something forced in post, when Quaid was no longer readily at hand.
This is not a great film, but it’s an unexpected success just the same. If you get a chance to watch it, do.