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The Brother From Another Planet, written and directed by John Sayles, 1984, 110 min.

The Brother From Another Planet is an absolute gem, one of those movies that surprises you from beginning to end with its sheer beauty and cleverness. By turns funny and horrifying, and generally episodic, the movie covers a great deal of ground, but always has its own feel, its own organic kind of internal consistency. Anchored by a stunning performance by Joe Morton as the Brother of the title, this is a fabulous character piece -- the Brother doesn't speak, but he's one of the most memorable characters in any film I've seen. Every fan of science fiction (as well as everyone else for that matter!) should watch this movie immediately, in order to see why you don't need a big budget to make a science fiction film of the highest calibre. As The Brother From Another Planet amply demonstrates, the basic requirement is a script. Preferably well-written! Sayles is actually a triple threat here, as he writes and directs the film, and also plays the part of a man in black (more on that in a minute). After a sharply-written script, you want some actors who will go the extra mile in their performances, and some top-notch cinematography while the going's good. All of these qualities, and more, exist in abundance in this movie.

As I've mentioned, the film is somewhat episodic. The plot is ramshackle, and follows the typical structure of that oldest of devices, the stranger in town. The Brother is actually an alien, who lands in New York City at the beginning of the movie. He looks exactly like a black man, except that he has three toes on each foot and he does not speak. He soon makes his way to Harlem, and he looks for work, falls in love, and so forth. The Brother even intervenes in a drug cartel-type operation that is going on in the neighbourhood. However, the strung-together nature of the narrative is not in the least a drawback of the movie. The tighter structure of most narratives is intended to keep the audience involved in a movie or book. The rules don't particularly matter if you deliver, and deliver in spades as does The Brother From Another Planet, what the rules are intended to help you deliver. I watched the film with a crowd of people late at night, and as soon as the lights went down, there was a noticeable decrease in energy. People were on the verge of falling asleep through the first five minutes... But once Sayles began practicing his magic, we were all in the palm of his hand, laughing, cheering, and even hissing the villains. We stayed up even later after the movie was done, rehashing our favourite lines.

The strength of the film is clearly the characters. Joe Morton takes a role that might seem a bit too artsy for its own good and gives it everything straight from his heart. Few performances can match this one, as he's in almost every scene, and he carries the movie on his capable shoulders. The other characters react to him, talk to him, try to beat him up, get nervous at his silence, fall in love with him, and through it all, his character flows, silent yet expressing volumes. The Brother is on the run from some tyrannical forces, as represented by the men in black. Not coincidentally, both of the men in black are white (and played hilariously by Sayles himself and the Sayles regular, David Strathairn). Sayles provides us with an ending that forces the "race issue" aspect of this in our faces, but for most of the film, the social commentary is structural and pleasingly sharp and subversive at the same time as it is subtle.

The Brother gathers a number of friends around him on his picaresque journey through Harlem. Some of these are stereotypes, like the men in the bar -- Smokey, the man who drinks too much, for example. He also encounters a singer, with whom he falls in love. She is in the middle of a struggle with her manager, or some such scum, and the Brother's sensitivity is very appealing to her. She hardly knows anything about him, another part of the commentary of the film. It might not be a long term relationship, but she is attracted to him because of his apparent willingness to listen (and do so all the time). The Brother does not seem to mind the inequality either, the joke being that the man who doesn't say anything is the right kind of man.

The Brother From Another Planet parodies all of the typical science fiction tropes as much as it uses them. The most obvious example has to do with the Brother falling in love. Why would an alien want to have sex with an Earth woman? That's what they always want, of course, as John Clute has pointed out before. And the joke that Sayles uses here is pretty clever -- the morning after, the singer tells him, "You have to do something about those toenails." As if that would be the only difference between a human and an alien. Sayles uses a running gag in the film about the Brother's pursuers, the men in black. Fitting in might be the oldest gag of them all, but the men in black have some great variations on the theme. Two white men, in a bar in Harlem, ordering "draft... on the rocks." Followed a little bit later by the line, "How did you know we were dicks?"

As might be expected from a Sayles film, The Brother From Another Planet has gorgeous cinematography. Yes, the movie is a character piece, but the camera takes in faces, places, and the bustle of the city with equal eye for the striking and the esthetically pleasing. The visual sense of the film is another of the subtle ways that Sayles deals with "the race issue. " Near the middle of the film, there's a lovely vignette with the Brother on a subway, and a white kid is showing him some card tricks. As the train makes its last stop before Harlem, the kid tells the Brother that the last trick will be to make all the white folks disappear. And so they do.

Some people might be put off by the low-budget tricks that Sayles has to resort to. But we have been spoiled by the millions and billions of Hollywood dollars that produce eye candy and train us to enjoy eye candy. I'm not saying The Brother From Another Planet is therefore subversive and radical, but it's yet another way that film pleased me, with its insistence of story and substance over gloss and big buildings blowing up. And despite the low budget, The Brother From Another Planet was more entertaining than any number of sleek studio product-type movies I could name. This Sayles film is joyful and sorrowful, funny and sad, plain old entertaining, and it couldn't be more highly recommended.

Last modified: November 8, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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