Thursday, September 20, 2007

Random Movie Report #35: The Brother From Another Planet

In THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, an alien with a message of peace moves through our nation’s capital, standing up to the great and powerful with an ultimatum that they can’t deny. I was reminded of this while watching THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, which takes the polar opposite approach- it is the story of an alien who is also peaceful, but occupies the lower rungs on the social ladder. “Brother”, of course, is used in the slang sense, as John Sayles’ film is about a black alien (an escaped slave, no less) who crash lands in New York City and ends up in Harlem. It’s a very funny little film, one which takes effort to get into but is entirely worth that. With a miniscule budget and a mute protagonist, the film casts a unique spell and ends up somewhere between science fiction comedy, urban drama, and art house surrealism.

The Brother (Joe Morton) obviously finds life hard as he tries to blend in with society. (The fact that his feet have three toes and long talons on the end of each does not help.) Obviously he has trouble communicating- he can understand languages, just not speak them- and concepts like the exchange of money for goods take a while to sink in. Fortunately, the patrons of a Harlem bar take an interest in this strange fellow, especially when he demonstrates his ability to heal the local video game machine by laying on hands (he can do the same for physical wounds, even to the extent of regrowing his own foot after it gets chopped off in the crash.) He’s paired with a social worker, who gets him a job at the local arcade, and a home with a single mother. Despite this the Brother still has trouble fitting in, and to compound his troubles, two sinister-looking white aliens (David Strathairn and Sayles himself) have arrived in New York asking questions.

I’m oversimplifying the plot, mainly because there’s a lot of side business; there’s a subplot about drugs, another about him becoming infatuated with a down-on-her-luck singer, and throughout the basic problem is one of communication. The Brother can hear everything (even things which happened in the past on a certain spot- he jumps up from a barstool where someone was once shot) but express very little on his own; then again, being a good listener does have its advantages, and most of the people who come to know the Brother come to like him. The film’s structure is an odd one; it seems loose, but I’m not sure I should call it that because there may yet be an underlying pattern to it that I didn’t see.

I have to admit, I have not seen that many Sayles films. And by “not that many”, I mean that this is my second, the first being THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH. Both films deal with wildly different cultures, but Sayles seems to have a knack for capturing the atmosphere of a place and lifestyle, even if his filmmaking isn’t precisely realistic. It goes without saying that there’s a lot of racial and social commentary here, including some immigration parallels that are as relevant now as then. (And I will not go any further into that for fear of attracting the bad kinds of comments. I’m not THAT desperate for readership. Yet.) Sayles manages to pitch these elements in a way that they don’t seem preachy, just natural. There are a lot of bit parts and neat characters who help flesh out what is a pretty barebones production.

Joe Morton’s performance is excellent- not only does he have to carry the film, he has to do so without saying a word, but he has a strong presence and is especially good at conveying and reminding us of the alienness of his character- he never quite fits in any situation, always stands just a little off, sits a bit wrong, points up with his thumb, etc. There’s a distinct personality here, never really one-note; the Brother is an innocent, but he has his wants and desires and weaknesses.

The film ends with a twist that took me a few seconds to really figure out, but when I did, became absolutely perfect. THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET wanders a lot and sometimes risks losing its way, but when it comes together there’s something brilliant to it. It’s hard to imagine how this movie came to be made, let alone released, in the middle of the Eighties, a decade which, though featuring plenty of fine films, was not really kind to quirky low-budget indies. It’s a rare and wild picture, which works on more than a few levels and blends genres deftly. I can’t name a specific audience this is supposed to appeal to, and I don’t have to. Anyone who likes movies should give this a look.

Written and Directed by John Sayles

Grade: A-

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