‘The Brother From Another Planet’
Directed by John Sayles
Written by John Sayles
A black, mute extraterrestrial with three toes and a detachable eye, played by Joe Morton (Terminator 2 Judgment Day), crash lands in Harlem, and spends his days working at an arcade and hanging out at local pubs, while hiding out from a group of “Men In Black.”
The film was written and directed by John Sayles (Lonestar, Return of the Secaucus 7 ), who once made a career in writing genre movies including the original Piranha, Alligator and The Howling. Brother was the fourth film in the director’s canon, released just after E.T., only unlike Spielberg’s hit, Brother was the independent urban take on the alien movie. Replacing the suburbs with Harlem and special effects with social commentary, Sayles manages a lot with a brisk $400,000 budget. Most people would think I’m crazy for placing the film on my 50 favourite cult films to begin, but there is a strange charm to Brother. It’s far from a perfect film, and buckles in the third act with a heavy handed anti-drug message, but it’s a fine example of what a filmmaker can accomplish with a shoestring budget and considerable imagination.
Strangely the film was a box office hit, which was good news for Sayles, who pretty much funded the movie right out of his own pocket. The Brother from Another Planet is essentially a series of vignettes, an off-beat comedy and a slice of life in 80’s New York City. Perhaps that’s it’s biggest draw. Brother acts best as a snapshot of the Big Apple – pre-Giuliani – capturing the sights, sounds and moods of the city. There’s a handful of memorable scenes throughout: one highlight involves a young Fisher Stevens making a brief cameo, performing a card trick in the New York subway (see the scene below). Another involves a strobe-like effect used when the “Brother” detaches his own eye, and leaves it behind as a sort of surveillance camera. And one can’t go without mentioning the barfight, which includes David Strathairn and John Sayles, who play the two alien bounty hunters.
Brother From Another Planet is very much a product of its time, examining an assortment of themes, most notably drug addiction, poverty and race issues within a community. Sayles is known as a political filmmaker, and here he maybe pushes his agenda a little too far with an added message that we’re all maybe a little too self involved.
Joe Morton carries the film on his shoulders which can’t be easy when you’re not even given one line of dialogue to deliver, but he’s brilliant. Using simply facial expressions and body movements, he manages to communicate a wide variety of feelings, and perhaps has never been better than he is here.
You have to admire Sayles for experimenting. Brother From Another Planet works best as an intriguing web of images, which is ironic coming from a filmmaker who is usually a better writer than he is a director. Also worth noting is the eclectic soundtrack, which includes Dee Dee Bridgewater, Little Anthony and the Imperials and even Joe Morton himself singing “Homeboy.”