The humans and the aliens (Dracs) have been at war (in space) for some time now. There's a great deal of prejudice between them, and the humans think of the Dracs as "lizards" and some worse terms.
Then this one human, Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid), shoots down a Drac ship, and both ships crash-land on a dangerous planet. Davidge's co-pilot dies and he's left to fend for himself. Then, while trying to get revenge on the Drac, he ends up getting captured instead.
The Drac, whose name, Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.), gets shortened to "Jerry" for the film, forces Davidge to slave away at building shelter and such, as he managed to hang onto his sidearm. But when the danger from deadly terrain, storms and predators gets to be too much, Jerry and Davidge end up working together, and then becoming friends.
Then Davidge decides to head out and see if there's any chance of them being rescued, but Jerry won't come with him. A good thing, possibly, as Davidge finds good news in the form of a futuristic Pepsi can (evidence that humans have visited Fyrine IV) and bad news in the form of a Drac skull (evidence that the humans are illegal strip miners). Once Davidge gets back, he learns that Jerry is pregnant (turns out that Dracs can self-fertilize and have no control over the process). Sadly, something goes awry and Jerry dies in childbirth, so Davidge raises the kid, Zammis (ZAH-mees) (Bumper Robinson), by himself.
Either because the film studio thought that Viewers Are Morons or because films work better with a climax, the villainous humans return to set up their mine run using Dracs as slaves. Since Davidge didn't teach Zammis that some humans are evil bastards, Zammis quizzically wanders into the area and gets captured. Davidge tries to save him but is shot dead by a scenery-chewing slavedriver played by Brion James.
Or so it seems. Turns out his body is retrieved by a military scouter and brought back to the starbase where he once served. They're just about to give him a funeral (straight out the airlock) when he revives and starts mumbling in the Drac language while unconscious. His former comrades nurse him back to health, and he steals a ship and heads off to find Zammis.
In a final conflict with the evil miners, Davidge enlists the help of the Drac slaves, freeing them, taking out the overacting slavedriver and his cronies, and finding Zammis, for a moment like he was dead but then he rouses and says his Catchphrase from earlier, "Zammis get four, five?" (referring to how Dracs have only 3 digits on their hands while humans have 5).
Because Jerry taught Davidge his Drac lineage (something highly treasured in Drac culture), he is able to recite it to the elder council on Zammis' home world and formally introduce the young Drac to his own society. In honor of his actions, Willis Davidge's name is added to the Jeriba family line.
The novella and film provide examples of the following tropes:
- Adaptational Dumbass: "Dumbass" is a mite harsh, but the novella's Zammis is almost worryingly intelligent, to the point that it completely throws Davidge for a loop by holding a deep, very verbose philosophical discussion about existence at barely a year old (and creates a bit of a Plot Hole, because who taught it all that if Davidge didn't?). The film version gives the young Drac a more believable intelligence level on par with a 10-12 year old human child.
- All Hail the Great God Mickey!: A variant. While Davidge, the human, knows full well who Mickey Mouse is, the alien Jeriba Shigan assumes (from Davidge's brief reference of him) that Mickey Mouse is a great spiritual figure... and Davidge never gets around to correcting the misunderstanding.
- Arch-Enemy: Willis Davidge has Stubbs, an illegal mine owner who enslaved his adopted alien child. The feeling's mutual, since Davidge killed Stubbs' younger brother while trying to get to Zammis.
- Auto-Doc: Used to heal Davidge after he got shot.
- Bathos: During a heated argument, Jerry attempts to blaspheme Davidge's deity. Unfortunately, Davidge never let on that Mickey Mouse wasn't actually a deity, so Jerry calling Mickey "one big, stupid DOPE!" actually defuses tension instead of escalating it.
- Big Bad: Stubbs, the leader of the Scavengers.
- Big Stupid Doo Doo Head: In a moment of anger, Jerry attempts to provoke Davidge by furiously calling Mickey Mouse (who he believes is the human equivalent of Shizumaat) "ONE BIG STUPID DOPE!"
- Bizarre Alien Reproduction: The Drac are parthenogenic, which means they self-fertilize. Watching Davidge helping the rather masculine Jeriba have a baby is more then a little surreal.
- Black Dude Dies First: The first casualty is Simpson, a black woman who's lead pilot of one of the fighters, when a Drac manages to get on her six and blast her to space dust. That Drac happens to be Jerry, and Davidge's attempted Roaring Rampage of Revenge is what kicks off the plot proper.
- A Boy and His X: The latter half of the film, which is an alien boy and his surrogate human "uncle", who must find a way to raise him despite knowing nothing about Drac children. The threat of the nearby slaving Scavengers is another curve ball for the two.
- Chekhov's Gun: The Fyrene Pit Fiend appears almost immediately after the crash, and repeatedly menaces both Davidge and Jerry. The turtle-like groundrunner, the Pit Fiend's first victim, also comes in very handly both as food and as a meteor shield.
- Color-Coded Patrician: Implied with the Drac elder, whose skin is greenish whereas all other Dracs we see have an earthy red coloration. The elder is also the only other Drac apart from Jerry and Zammis that understands "Earthman speech" (English), suggesting he held an important position in Drac society before his enslavement.
- Conveniently Close Planet: Not only do they both crash on the nearby planet, but within walking distance of each others spacecraft.
- Crazy Cultural Comparison: Early in the relationship, Davidge quotes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Jerry thinks he must have learned this from "great Drac teacher, Shizumaat." Davidge responds he learned it from Mickey Mouse, and Jerry assumes he was a "great Earthman teacher." They also have this with Shizumaat's book that has its own version of "love your enemies" and when Davidge comments on hearing it before, Jerry replies of course, since it's universal truth.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The beginning fighter scene starts out as this but turns ugly when the Drac ambush the Alert squadron. Also pretty much every time Davidge faces off against the slavemaster (to be fair, Davidge takes out numerous slavers and gives as good as he gets when they fight, but Stubbs has no problem keeping him at a disadvantage by targeting a defenseless Zammis).
- Death World: Fyrene IV. If the predators and extremely powerful electrical storms don't get you, the periodic meteor showers will probably do the job.
- Death by Childbirth: How Jeriba dies.
- Deadpan Snarker: Jerry has quite a sarcastic streak at times. "Jerry, old buddy, where would you be without me?" "Back home."
- Depth of Field: The crash landing on Fyrine IV is accomplished by filming miniatures with a very shallow depth-of-field focus.
- Disneyfication: The ending of the film is much more optimistic than the ultimately happy but rather more cynical ending of the original novella.
- Dies Wide Open: Joey, Davidge's co-pilot, fatally wounded in the collision with Jerry's ship.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Zammis' insecurity about not looking like his Uncle Davidge is very reminiscent of the struggle that interracial adoptees might go through.
- Double-Meaning Title: Caused by Executive Meddling. "Enemy mine" means "my enemy." The climax of the film also features a mine full of enemies, because the studio thought the audience wouldn't understand that it refers to a possessive, not an object.
- It goes even further - the protagonist's spacecraft collides with a mine near the beginning.
- The Italian translation - Il Mio Nemico - ("My enemy") got it right, mostly because in Italian, the possessive and the object in question are two different words with no risk of confusion.
- Due to the Dead: The funeral crew disposes of corpses in accordance with each stiff's beliefs. For example, before Davidge's corpus is brought to the checker on the conveyor belt leading to the airlock, the corpse of an agnostic soldier is unceremoniously dropped through the airlock ("No music."), with little more than a wreath and a "so long" from one of the young men to send him off, and before him a corpse of Christian denomination is airlocked with organ music with voiceover accompaniment and, yes, a wreath (though the music machine breaks down as the conveyor belt sends the corpses closer to the airlock). Davidge himself is about to be airlocked as "John Doe, Protestant" before one of the young men decides to try to take a possession off of him, resulting in Davidge letting him know rather violently that no, he isn't dead.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: The film is relentlessly dark and gritty — literally as well as metaphorically — thanks to it taking place in a Death World while Fantastic Racism is all over the place. The final minute of the film justifies everything that happens before it.
- Enemy Mine: The two main characters must join up against the elements to survive, in spite of being enemies. The movie is not the Trope Namer, however the novella this was based on is, in fact, the Trope Namer. Despite common confusion, it does not originate from the phrase "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" - it is an original phrase that the author, Barry Longyear, came up with randomly as a poetic way of saying "my enemy".
- Everyone Has Standards: Davidge isn't too fond of humans who slave Dracs, and is disgusted by the government who look the other way.
- Evil Is Hammy: If Brion James' villainous performance as Stubbs the slaver were any more hammy, several major religions would have to forbid watching it.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: Several of the slavers die short but very gruesome deaths like one being thrown by Davidge into an industrial grinder with a brief glimpse of his body being torn apart.
- Fairy Tale: Very subtle, but the film ends with a Narrator essentially saying everyone lived Happily Ever After.
- Fantastic Racism: A prominent theme of the story.
- Fictional Accent: For the film, Louis Gossett, Jr. as the alien Drac would gargle saliva as he talked to give his voice an odd, non-human quality.
- Fire-Forged Friends: Davidge and Jeriba have to cooperate if they expect to survive at all.
- The Golden Rule: The aliens' holy book has a version of the quote. Davidge remarks that The Bible has a similar quote, and Jerry isn't surprised. "Truth is truth." It highlights how neither of them practiced this (being at war) until they were forced to as well.
- Hate Sink: Stubbs is an illegal miner who takes advantage of the human-Drac war to enslave the latter, working them to death in hellish conditions. Stubbs even does this to Drac children, leading Davidge to go after him when he kidnaps Zammis. When Davidge shows up to rescue the boy, Stubbs isn't above threatening Zammis for an advantage in the fight.
- Highly-Conspicuous Uniform: While he still manages to evade detection on his way to finding Zammis, Davidge doesn't think to shed his blindingly white coveralls while sneaking through the dimly-lit areas of the mining facility, even though the dark green military uniform he has on underneath would make for much better camouflage.
- Honorary Uncle: Davidge. It loses "honorary" when his name is officially added to the line of Jeriba.Elderly Drac: So... you are "Uncle".
- Humans Are Bastards: In the opening conflict leading to Davidge being captured by Jeriba, the human is clearly the more barbaric of the two. But the trope really comes into play when the Scavengers appear, as their brutal enslavement of Dracs (and the human government turning a blind eye to it) disgusts even Davidge.
- Humans Are Ugly: So says Jerry, at any rate."You... ugly... head."
Davidge: (Manly Tears) Do I?
- However, Jerry saves Davidge's life because he states that the Pit Beast is even uglier.
- Zammis says Davidge looks "terrible" after he's rescued.
Zammis: *crying* "I wish I was not a Drac!"Davidge: "Hey, hey... Now, as far as Dracs go, you are one good-lookin' kid!"
- Inverted prior to that. Zammis had been exclusively raised by Davidge, and grew up ashamed of himself for not looking "normal" like his uncle:
- Humanoid Aliens: The Drac have certain fundamental differences from human biology (most notably their reproductive cycle), but they're still bipeds with two arms and a head on top that does the talking.
- "It" Is Dehumanizing: Zig-zagged. Humans ostensibly refer to Dracs as "it" to otherize them because they're at war with each other, but since Dracs are a One-Gender Race the term is technically appropriate for them.
- Mirrored Confrontation Shot
- Mood Whiplash:
- Davidge, chasing after a groundrunner, falls headlong into a familiar looking pit, cussing a blue streak. Slapstick soon turns to horror, though, when the resident Pit Fiend's tongue appears and begins seeking him out...
- An even more drastic one: the meditative sunset scene with Jerry and Davidge is interrupted by another lethal meteorite storm; they barely make it back to shelter, and amidst the continuous roar of the impacts around them, they're almost immediately at each others' throats...
- Mugging the Monster: Davidge attempts to sneak-attack both Jeriba (to steal his supplies) and Stubbs the slavedriver (to rescue Zammis). To say the least, neither ends well for Davidge.
- Narrator All Along: The narrator turns out to be the elder Drac in the slave camp.
- Nicknaming the Enemy: Dracs are called "lizards" by humans.
- One-Gender Race: There are no male Drac or female Drac, as each Drac is both male and female at the same time.
- Only Mostly Dead: Davidge survives being shot by the Scavengers.
- Papa Wolf: Never mess with Zammis. Even if Davidge has to come back from being Only Mostly Dead, steal a starfighter, and go AWOL, he WILL find you.
- The Power of Friendship: What Davidge and Jerry's Teeth-Clenched Teamwork eventually develops into.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: The literal mine filled with enemies that factors into the finale was demanded by studio executives and wasn't present at all in the source novella, where the main characters are simply found and rescued. Because of the way film plots are typically structured, though, a direct adaptation of the novella's ending would have been seen as somewhat unsatisfying in a movie, as there's no real set of climactic events that lead up to the resolution.
- Pronoun Trouble: Jeriba is referred to as "it", rather than "he" or "she," because all Drac are hermaphrodites.
- Recycled In Space: The novella and the film are Hell in the Pacific IN SPACE!
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Subverted — the Drac are loathed by humanity and personally by Davidge in the beginning, but Davidge becomes friends with Jerry, and ultimately raises his child.
- Revenge Before Reason: Davidge does it twice in quick succession.
- When one of the human pilots gets shot by Jeriba, despite having malfunctions with his own engine and against the suggestions of the co-pilot, Willis goes on a chase after the Drac. This gets him and the alien stranded, while the co-pilot dies during the crash.
- Right after the crash, his very first decision is not to prepare for his own survival or do anything else - he heads straight to the crash site of the Drac's fighter to finish off the survivor. Somewhat justified, as making sure your mortal enemy is neutralized is a reasonable course of action, though it shouldn't necessarily be the very first thing you do.
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: "Double, double, toil and trouble! For my little brother!"
- Super-Persistent Predator: Taken to an extreme by the Fyrene Pit Fiend. Having its tongue blasted off and the inside of its mouth scorched wasn't apparently enough - it deliberately followed them to their camp to stage an ambush. In an ironic twist, it also saves their lives, forcing them out of the shelter just as a rock formation falls on it and crushes it - and the Pit Fiend.
- Truly Single Parent: The drac parental lineage is truly linear, since they are self-fertilizing like some terrestrial reptiles. In the words of the novella, "Don't tell a drac to boff himself, because he probably will!"
- War Is Hell: Par for the course for a Wolfgang Petersen film. It starts with the debris from a shot-up human fighter and the frozen body of the pilot, and gets worse from there. Highlighted by the atrocities that the human leaders conveniently ignore because they're at war.