(The following story contains spoilers from Enemy.)
In Garth Davis’ new genre mashup, EnemyThe future of the planet – and a relationship with it – depends in part on the capabilities of artificial intelligence in response to climate change.
The Amazon Studios film, out worldwide on October 6, is based on author and co-writer Iain Reid’s 2018 novel of the same name. In the near, climate-devastated future, a couple living on a remote farm find themselves test subject for the survival of humanity.
The book has collected a wide range of genre descriptions – psychological thriller, horror, science fiction, to name a few – and the film strives to inhabit each of them, sometimes simultaneously. But for writer-director Davis, who spoke about the making of the film during a discussion after its screening at the 2023 New York Film Festival, he not only found “the book utterly compelling in its mystery,” but was ultimately drawn to the relationship between Saoirse Ronan’s Hen and Paul Mescal’s Junior, that’s the core.
“I think what really attracted me to it was the central relationship. What Hen was trying to fight for and find in that relationship and how this experiment, in a way, allowed her to re-explore marriage and re-connect with her agency,” he explained to a packed audience on Saturday at the world premiere of the film. Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. “It had an unusual form that showed the classic cinematic genre qualities, but underneath there was a very deep human story.”
That story follows the couple after they are visited by Terrance (Aaron Pierre), an official from a government agency that oversees human expansion into space. With the planet ravaged by the effects of climate change, societies are looking to invent a new way of survival for the world’s population.
“What we were really interested in was how the relationship echoed the state of the planet and explored our interconnectedness. The way we behave is almost also a reflection of the state of the planet,” he said. “The question is can we change, can we make choices that make (not only) our own lives better, but also the world?”
Terrance makes a proposal that soon reveals itself as an order: Junior has been selected to help test humans’ ability to survive on a newly built space station. The ‘opportunity’ would separate the duo – who have already become emotionally distant in their marriage.
They are given just over a year to prepare before Terrance returns to begin Junior’s pre-mission tests, which begin to creep into a kind of psychological warfare. The revelation that an AI version of Junior remains with Them in his absence only further insults the injured couple and threatens to tear them apart.
Meanwhile, around them is a planet where the environment is losing the battle to survive and business is the only thing still thriving. For Davis, that contrast – and connection – between the couple and the environment was something he wanted to focus on.
“Junior’s farm and the way Hen lived with Junior was like a window into the natural world or the state of the natural world. If you go beyond that, we are interested in this disturbing naturalism. It’s the color of these mega-industries,” Davis explained while talking about the way he and production designer Patrice Vermette depicted Earth in the near future. “Either the land is wasted and used up and cannot be uninterrupted, or it is vividly colored with hollow towers for tower farming.”
Climate change and the development of humanoid AI as a backdrop to the film’s relationship drama are also something that initially attracted Davis. Enemy, and only more so as the film went through production. “It felt radically close to the event. I feel like this is a menacing story and actually moved me making the film,” he explained. “Things happened during production, and I basically said, ‘Holy shit, this is becoming a reality.'”
For most of the film, the issues it raises are largely presented within a larger narrative framework of a deteriorating relationship fighting to survive. For Davis, Hen is a character trapped by the past in “a spirit house,” while Junior takes on generational responsibility for his farm and family. Both, together with the audience, are asked to decide what they want to keep and what they decide to change.
“They are wonderful soulmates. Junior does make Hen happy, but over time he lost his spontaneity and his ability to change. I think that’s really interesting,” Davis said. “What happens to relationships over time, and how do we remind ourselves to take things out, reassess, and connect with our true calling?”
But as the film progresses, those relationship questions begin to turn into something darker and sometimes even sinister as elements of the story’s mystery begin to unravel themselves. Davis says cinematographer Mátyás Erdély – whom he chose to work with after his regular cinematographer was busy with other projects – helped him navigate “this wonderful experiment” in storytelling.
“This whole film is a series of sequences set in one house, and I didn’t want to take that for granted. You can’t be lazy with talking heads in a room. But I felt strongly that he could help me bring that to life – the tension, the mystery,” the filmmaker said. “What was really exciting for him, and for me especially, was that for new viewers you have a hard time understanding what the hell is going on here. There are many secret rivets. There are many truths, lies and appearances.
“(It was) trying to calibrate that. How obvious do we make that when choosing cameras? How often do the actors do that?” Davis continued. “He is very interested in the script and the story and really wants to know the essence of each individual scene to know where the camera should go.”
The editing process, led by Peter Sciberras, worked similarly in terms of deploying and then unraveling the mystery beneath the film’s love story. “The biggest challenge in the film, from every point of view, was deciding how much to reveal and what to hide,” the director said. “We were going to explore it in an experimental way with performances, but we just had to tailor the editing to, I hope, keep the audience engaged but intrigued, confused and excited and hopefully find some answers.”
The casting, overseen by Francine Maisler and Kirsty McGregor, and the performances were also crucial to how successfully Davis could unravel his own mystery. According to the director, it was necessary to find his Hen first, as she was “the spiritual totem of the film.”
He then cast based on performance and chemistry, noting that Mescal and Ronan’s shared identity as Irish actors made them feel “good”, as “this couple married straight out of high school” and came from the same place. “I just had an inkling that the chemistry would feel believable, and they’re both very hungry (as actors) to explore a more mature relationship,” he added.
Davis went on to describe Pierre as “a completely different style of actor”, but still a performer who added so much to this character. “The antagonist was the hardest to cast because you can really fall into stereotypes, and I really wanted to try and find something that felt fresh and intriguing,” he explained. “I thought he made a lot of interesting choices, like he really believed that what he was doing would improve humanity.”