When you have no budget, a cast of unknowns, and a weird idea, how do you turn it into a movie? Writer/Director John Sayles gives us some guidelines for doing just that with this way off center look at cross cultural science fiction.
It is hard to imagine the creativity that is required to work within the limitations that this movie seems to have had. In 1984, this was indie movie twice removed. The info I found says that Sayles payed for the film partially with funds from the MacArthur Genius grant he received. He was most known for scriptwriting for Roger Corman films and being an ace script doctor. Oh, and he made the influential “Return of the Secaucus 7”. I’ve only seen four of his movies and this was the first one I saw in a theater.
“The Brother From Another Planet” shows off the limits of it’s budget and it’s creativity in the first scene. We see an astronaut, struggling to control their craft as it is crash landing. The interior is tight, it is highlighted with some funky red light appliances, and we mostly just see the vehicles occupant in an upside down , seated position. We never see an actual crash, instead we see a pair of hands, pull a man over the side of a concrete wall that appears to be on the Hudson River. How do we know that this is the same occupant? Well he has been injured, his leg is missing and the stump is bleeding, but he wraps his glowing hands on the stump and in a couple of scenes his leg has returned. The only thing that seems alien about his appearance is the fact that each foot has only three toes. He is dressed in a torn tunic and ragged trousers when he first encounters humans, he has managed to find shoes to cover his feet and disguise who he is. From several of the early night sequences we discover that his communication occurs largely through touch. When he leans on a wall, we hear the screams of a woman in his head, as he touches a post in the subway, we can hear a train and a man shouting.
At first the movie seems to be about the immigration experience and how strange our customs and practices might be. He is accosted by a Muslim man asking for donations and it is clear he has no concept of what is going on. When he is hungry, he helps himself to some fruit outside of a Korean grocery. The lady running the store stops him and takes away the food. As he observes a customer using money and getting food in exchange, the “Brother” tries to follow suit by taking money from the cash register, picking up food and then offering the money back. As you would expect, this does not go down well at the grocery. Later, he enters a bar to get off the streets and the regulars of the bar try to figure him out. Time has gone by and it is clear that he cannot speak. In an interesting example of stereotyping, an older patron starts to speculate that the “Brother” might be Haitian and carry some weird voodoo/cannibal virus. He is an outsider although his skin is dark like the rest of the bar flies.
The point of the story now seems to be on the differences in cultures that the alien will encounter. A friendly social worker manages to get him a spot to crash with the white wife of a black client. She comes from Alabama and she is an alien in Harlem as well as him. His silence is compensated for by her incessant complaining and sharing of her opinion of the neighborhood, her mother in law and her son.
Joe Morton is the star of this film. He has worked regularly for the last forty years, this seems like a breakout part however. As the star of the film he got a lot of credit for it’s success. He is an actor who has to create sympathy and understanding without being able to use word, while all those he comes into contact with speak constantly. He won an award at a film festival for this film and it was one of the elements that contemporary reviews mentioned. As the character wanders around in a confused state, he finds he is not the only one who is confused. Junkies act irrationally, a co-worker assumes he is Puerto Rican, and everyone is befuddled by his ability to fix things that seemed to have been irredeemably broken.
It turns out that he is not the only alien on the planet. Two Men in Black have a three hundred and sixty degree portrait of him that they are showing around the neighborhood. The image of these two white guys bouncing around Harlem asking residents to say if they have seen the man begins to reveal the true nature of the movie. It is a comedy of manners.As the two lanky men enter the bar and try to pass themselves off as immigration officers, they order two beers, on the rocks. Later they mimic the famous scene from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, you know, “we don’t need to show you no badges”. The bar patrons put off the pursuers but they have other leads.
To me, the section of the film that gave me the most amount of laughs had to do with the strategy used by the social worker to deal with the two white aliens. His coworker sees that he is dodging them and so she stacks them up with paperwork that government agency would in fact demand of another government agency. There is a bar fight a little later in the movie and the pursuing aliens show their superior fighting skills and strengths, but later when they are chasing the “brother”, they run after him with the lilt of a couple of enfeebled rabbits. It was hysterical.
For no particular reason, two other white visitors to the bar also encounter the “Brother”. They are from Indiana and have come to New York for a self awareness seminar, and they end up lost in Harlem. They are from all outward appearances, harmless, and they start drinking with the alien. They mouth appropriate racial platitudes, and even though they sound a little condescending, they are also sincere. This is another twist on cultural riff that Sayles keeps strumming during the story. It is also the set up for the biggest laugh in the movie. Repeatedly, when questioned about where he is from, the “Brother” has indicated with a gesture to the sky that would make Siskel and Ebert proud. The directions that he gives these two as they get set to leave the bar will make you have a real world spit take if you are drinking anything at the time.
The little boy of the woman the “Brother” has been staying with, accompanies him on a trip to the museum where they learn about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. It is here that it becomes clear that our hero is an escaped slave from another world. We can begin to see a few more reasons why some of the plot points have been emphasized up to here. There is a long meandering passage that focuses on a sexual attraction that the alien has to a lounge singer. It also seems to occur for no reason except to set up a joke about his toenails. Everyone acts in what seems to be an appropriate way, but there is always something a little off that makes the cross cultural communications awkward.
The movie takes a detour into a very strange revenge plot concerning drug use. Except for a couple of references to the corporate culture and how it is being mixed with the uptown culture, this long sequence feels very out of place. There is however another attempt to remind us that this is a science fiction film. The “Brother” uses his detachable eyeball to keep tabs on some drug dealers in the neighborhood. When confronting the main financial supporter of the drug ring, we get a chance to see how the touch form of communication might work.
The movie never seems to be in a hurry to get to a destination and it changes its destination several times during the story. Although it is mostly a comedy, the film ends on some rather serious issues. I appreciated the cultural points but they are very random and the humor exists in small bursts so it might be hard to get a hold of the movie while you are watching it. I’m posting on this one early because I had to rent it from Amazon Prime on my Kindle, it was not available of the main site, until I rented it and it came up in the queue. My rental period expired tonight so instead of “Oxford Blues” this week, you get “The Brother From Another Planet”. Once you have watched this film, you will be as confused as my schedule this week is, but I think you will probably still enjoy it.