Moving on, we find writer/director/producer John Sayles, whom I first encountered through my mother and the 1997 jungle bloodbath, Men with Guns. But let’s not even go there.
Instead, let’s go back two weeks ago, to the Hollywood Video by my apartment-hive. I’d planned to fill some of the gaps in my girlfriend’s cinematic knowledge base with a little classic Star Trek. Low and behold, I spot this little bundle of weird and I felt…almost compelled. Worst case scenario, I was in for 108 minutes of bad blaxploitation comedy. Like I can’t get through that in my sleep…
Was I ever blind sided. This is no ordinary blaxploitation comedy. I’m not even sure it has a right to the label. No gunplay, no kung fu, no hookers, no afros…a few evil white guys to be sure…but what movie doesn’t have those?
Instead, Brother From Another Planet has a conscience, and Lord help us it’s a social conscience. This is a movie with Something to Say. Released just after E.T., Brother is an attempt to re-imagine the proverbial immigrant story and turn it on its head. While it succeeds in this, it does so at the expense of the little things like pacing…structure…stuff of that nature. Like me, this movie has a bad case of the Rambles. And by the ninety minute mark I was itching for it to shut the hell up.
Amazing when you consider our protagonist is mute.
We open in space, where no one can here your instruments malfunction. That’s just what happens to Our Hero, known only as the Brother, who crash-lands* on Ellis Island, minus his right foot. If you can tear your eyes away from those two towers in the background, you might notice Our Hero is played by one Joe Morton…better known in these parts as Miles Bennett Dyson. You know, “the man most directly responsible” for the nuclear apocalypse that begins and ends The Terminator?
*[Not that we see the crash. That would have cost money. Instead we see a pin light rush across a background of Christmas tree light stars and hear a stock crash-landing sound. I should pause to note that writer/director John Sayles is yet another graduate of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. Hell, he even co-wrote Piranha. What more do I need to say?]
Unperturbed by his loss of limb, the Brother hops into the old Immigration building…only to be assaulted by the psychic cries (!) of long-departed, huddled masses who massed inside those walls once upon a time. Despite this, our protagonist spends his first night on Earth huddled on the floor. (The range and extent of the Brother’s psychic powers never gets addressed…they only appear, it seems, in service of the film’s greater Message.)
The next day finds our Brother in New York (he took the Ferry), and it is a wonderful ten minutes worth of movie. The cacophony and sheer chaos of the Manhattan in the 80s has been known to overwhelm even humble terrestrials like us. Watching the Brother make his way through them is a treat for anyone in love with the art of visual storytelling.
It doesn’t take long for the Brother to waltz into a bar and be mistaken for a wino by the regulars…character actors all, and if you don’t remember their faces, you might just remember their names. That’s Steve (American Ninja, Delta Force) James behind the bar as Odel. There’s Bill (Cotton Club) Cobbs sitting on that bar stool, reminiscing about Harlem’s Golden Age and any paranoid conspiracy theory under the sun. Leonard (Five on the Black Hand Side, The Color Purple) Jackson sits beside him, and their scenes together are the best in show. I couldn’t help but wonder why the hell these people (fine actors all) are relegated to the likes of Delta Force or The Color Purple. Keanu Reeves pulls in millions for his blank stares and these talented bastards are still struggling with piecemeal TV guest spots. Damnit. Damnit, damnit, damnit…
Okay, so a mute alien walks into a bar. Bartender says: “Can I help you brother?” No response. Enter Sam (Tom Barbershop Wright), hometown boy and civil service worker, off from a hard day at the office. Odel and Leonard Jackson’s Smokey quickly shame him into helping a brother out…and its not long before the Brother reveals his Magic Touch and fixes Odel’s video game machine with the aid of a little light bulb held under his palm.
This talent soon earns the Brother a job at the local arcade, and a place to stay. Here’s where things begin to break down, and John Sayles relative inexperience (Brother being his fourth film out from under the Corman umbrella) becomes apparent. From this point on, Brother becomes incredibly sloppy, as our mute protagonist meets and greats the assorted personalities of Harlem. This quickly devolves into a litany of scenes where character’s talk at Our Hero…and, by extension, us. Nice as this is (can you taste the cynicism?), it quickly degrades into a fairly standard social-conscience picture about the inner city lower class. Because their plight is much more interesting then that of the alien being with whom they share so-much screen time.
It’s not hard to see where Sayles’ interests lay. You don’t even have to watch the Special Features (though you should…for no other reason than to see Sayles compare his movie to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man). See: the Brother get mugged by Hoodlums. Thrill as the Brother falls in love (with a lounge singer, no less) and discovers the Joy of Sex. You won’t believe your eyes when the Brother finds his mugger behind a garbage heap, ODed on heroin. He promptly swallows the heroin and embarks on a mystical vision quest through the alleys, complete with Ganja-Smoking Rastafarian Guide. Groan as the Brother tracks the flow of dope back to its source: a Rich White Businessman with a skyscraper and a secretary.
Thus the Second Act is prolonged to all get-out, way past the point of absurdity. Especially with those two Men In Black (David Strathairn and John Sayles) sniffing after our Hero. No rap singing, Fresh Princes they. This MiB comes from the stars, where they grease the wheels of their society with slave labor. Our little planet must be just over the intergalactic Mason-Dixon line.
Now here’s a movie for you, made all the more appealing thanks to years of action films wrapping themselves in the banner of science fiction. Not terribly complex, but better than 98% of the shit coming out today that chooses to call itself sci-fi. It’s clear early on that John Sayles cared no more for the genre than his modern counterparts. Witness the Brother’s psychic powers appearing and disappearing whenever the mood requires. Or the Brother detaching his own eye and using it as a remote surveillance camera. Or his Mr. Good Wrench Touch. Or the fact that he can actually have sex with terrestrial women. (I keep hearing Christopher Walken asking, “You didn’t think this through too well, did you?”) For most of the movie, the Brother could’ve been any immigrant, come to America…and there are much better versions of this story on film. The alien angle is the only hook this movie has and I’m sorry Sayles didn’t see that sooner.
Instead he focuses on bargain-basement social commentary. There’s an interesting scene early on where the Brother encounters a giant wooden crucifix (complete with the usual emasculated, bloody Jesus) in a store window, turns, and sees a white cop frisking a black youth for no apparent reason. At the time, I thought this was a bit of throwaway set dressing. (“Looks like another beautiful day in Harlem…”) But soon, experience taught me that this scene is indicative of the film’s whole character. I half-expected Keenen Ivory Wayans to stroll through in full UPS regalia, on his way to deliver a “Message!”
There are some stand-out scenes in all of this. Some of them even ring true. I’m thinking of the cameo by an absurdly young Fisher (Hackers, Super Mario Brothers) Stevens, wherein he performs a card trick…”But really, it’s a story.” This scene could’ve been a movie in itself, and it’s end cap could make one hell of a short story. (Memo to self: write short story, sell to magazine, get publishing credit, sell novel(s), make millions, sell out.) Then there’s the Obligatory Bar Fight…
And let’s not forget the Men in Black. I almost did…though I submit to you they disappear for almost forty minutes. Those two are quite nicely done, with a creepy economy of motion achieved through the age-old technique of running the film backwards. Those two are much more convincing aliens and a credible threat to Our Hero. But the conflict between the three of them takes ninety minutes to materialize…far too long to really maintain interest.
As you probably know, Joe Morton’s turn in T2 is not indicative of his career. The man is a Shakespearian actor with enough talent to carry this film…which is amazing considering the heavy load he’s asked to shoulder. He does it well when he’s called to, but most of the time he’s just an observer. It’s not particularly dynamic and it throws everything into the hands of the bit players, none of whom (apart from those mentioned above) are very memorable in and of themselves.
Brother From Another Planet is very much a child of its time and place. Its initial premise is interesting and somewhat inventive, but most of the early promise is squandered by the time the credits role. Second Act pacing problems are sure to leave you navel gazing…unless you really enjoy being depressed by slices of life from Harlem. Throw in a heavy-handed anti-drug Message and you’ve got a movie sure to grab you by the short hairs or annoy your out of the room. Uneven, a little slow, and far too serious, Brother is the ultimate mixed bag…this week. Feeling experimental? Nurturing a major crush on the works of John Sayles? Then I’m sure your local Hollywood Video will happily oblige. The rest of you, move along. Nothing much to see here.