A truly bizarre low-budget effort from writer-director John Sayles, The Brother From Another Planet nearly topples over from the weight of its social commentary. Thankfully a sharp cast and goofy wit mostly keep the movie light on its feet.
Joe Morton stars as the title figure, whose spaceship crashes to earth in the opening scene—onto Ellis Island, as a matter of fact, to make sure we get the “illegal alien” allegory at work. The plight of immigrants is one thematic concern, then. When “The Brother” wanders into Harlem, the movie adds others: race relations; police brutality; and the drug trade, to name a few. The sociology works better when acknowledged in comic asides (“Green card my black ass,” a bar patron says when two officials demand identification) than when given an entire subplot. (The Brother’s tracking down of a white drug dealer takes up an awful lot of screen time in order to make the same point Super Fly managed in a single montage.)
Many of the best scenes have a barbershop feel.
Morton does some wonderful work in the lead role. Because The Brother can’t speak English, much of the performance is in pantomime. Yet rather than go for broad, fish-out-of-water jokes, he makes the character unassumingly odd. (After taking a bite of an apple he holds in one hand, he calmly does the same to the head of lettuce he’s holding in the other.) Bigger laughs do come at that bar, where a handful of regulars (including a priceless Bill Cobbs) riff on everything from satellite technology to The Brother’s place of origin. (“He looks like a man from a chain gang,” one of them says when he first stops in.) Many of the best scenes in The Brother From Another Planet have a similar, barbershop feel, where the cast is given an absurd situation and allowed to let loose.
The plot, such as it is, kicks into gear with the arrival of two white men in black (David Strathairn and Sayles himself) who are revealed to be aliens in pursuit of The Brother. Though both are having fun (I like the alien screams they share), some of their scenes veer toward unintentional comedy. Sayles is a man of many talents—he also edited the film—but staging and filming fight sequences isn’t one of them.
The cinematography is by Ernest Dickerson, a Spike Lee collaborator who would go on to film some of Lee’s best features. He brings a vibrancy to the Harlem scenes here, while also creating some abstract lighting effects in that opening crash, in which The Brother’s cockpit feels like the inside of a Space Invaders arcade game. Also notable are the images of The Brother’s hands glowing with healing power. For all its silliness and satire, The Brother From Another Planet also offers some quieter moments, when this frightened visitor’s worried face is illumined by a soft, warm glow.