Movies We Like
The Brother from Another Planet
Who knew that you could use extraterrestrials to make a bold statement about racial conflict and immigration? Seems all too easy when you think about it, but John Sayles did it here with a surprising amount of brilliance.
It's been years since I've seen the film, and one of the joys of revisiting a classic movie is being able to finally understand its message through the humor and irony of the plot. In the movie we find an alien with African-American features (Joe Morton) who ironically crashes his spaceship at the Ellis Island Immigration Center. He hobbles around injured and observes the foreign surroundings before healing his wounds with a simple touch. Though he's unable to speak or make vocal sounds, he can understand every language on Earth and has other abilities that could be compared to that of a psychic superhero. The first that we observe is his ability to touch inanimate objects and hear the pain and anguish from spirits that used or were around the object. The only physical feature that sets him apart from others, besides the fact that he's black, are his three oversized toes as feet, which he keeps covered, of course.
By morning he reaches Harlem and is met by many wide eyes, though he starts to understand that they only think he's different or a threat because of his bummy appearance—a slave's rags, more or less. He becomes aware of the importance and power of money. He accidentally steals and is miraculously fearful of law enforcement by nature. What seems to intrigue him the most upon arrival is the presence of religion and Earth's fascination with outer space and extraterrestrial life.
He wanders into a bar and finds a group of black men with a range of personalities; a germaphobic, paranoid elder; a bar keep; a conspiracy theorist; a kid from Mississippi who's an arcade game junkie, and their strait-laced friend from Jersey who works for immigration and speaks three languages. Each of the men is mesmerized by him for one reason or another. He poses a challenge to the bar keep, the elder thinks that he's a disease-carrying immigrant, the theorist wants to quiz him, and the teenager is impressed that he mysteriously fixes the arcade machine. The only one willing to approach the fact that he's a homeless foreigner in need of direction is the immigration worker. He offers to take him to a single-mother who occasionally takes boarders and gets him a job fixing electronics and arcade machines under the table.
Meanwhile, two white aliens (John Sayles and David Strathairn), taking on a sort of men in black operation, are tracking him down. Unlike him they can speak, though they sound like robotic Siamese twins, and aren't afraid of anything. They pose as FBI and Immigration officials, visiting the places that “The Brother” has been to and try to interrogate those who've seen him. But “The Brother” avoids them by staying busy hustling for money through odd jobs and learning all there is to know about Earth's people. He learns how to accept being mistreated, discriminated against, and underpaid. He takes a liking to graffiti. He learns that Earth people have a standard of beauty and that they use sex appeal to sell products. He becomes smitten with a singer who's on tour in New York for a few days. None of his experiences are excruciatingly genuine, except his bond with Earle, the five-year old son of the woman he boards with. He is able to tell the child without speaking that he's from outer space. While trying to be the boy's temporary father figure he exposes him to African-American culture and points out that, like Earle's ancestors, he's being hunted by white slave owners from outer space.
His attachment and involvement with Earle helps him to notice other kids in the city, many of whom are older and involved in petty crime and hard drugs. Through them he begins to understand that the community is polluted in a range of ways. As his oppressors close in he decides to try and make a positive difference in the lives around him before his time on Earth is over.
Some of the qualities in the movie are very dated, and the whole minorities vs. whites rational was not unbearably unrealistic, but it was exaggerated to the point of being a little hokey. The film's technical features hold up the film as much as the concept, and while they are subtle when compared to others in the sci-fi genre, they are very noticeable to the trained eye. The editing, also done by Sayles, is brilliant and the frame composition is exquisite. There are many humorous and upsetting moments in the film that bring to mind a lot of important subjects, but it also mocks stereotypes and American immigration policies. The is one of those movies that features a great cast of unknowns and old-timers, with a nuanced message that will probably never be addressed in such a fashion again. Even if it was, it wouldn't be half as good as Sayles's vision. His message, while dated and a little excessive, is still relevant, and the experience of a good movie from a risk-taking filmmaker will never get old.