Make of it what you will

Challenging take on the tabula rasa

Published: Apr 25 2018, 01:01:am

Sunday, December 23, 1984.

THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. Music by Mason Daring. Written, edited and directed by John Sayles. Running time: 108 minutes. Mature entertainment.
THIS HAS BEEN A YEAR bracketed by alien encounters.  Last January [1984], the first science-fiction film shown locally was a low-budget British shocker called Xtro. No cuddly E.T. , the title character was the remnant of a man space-napped three years earlier who returns to Earth to claim his son.
    Xtro was one of those pictures more interested in yucky form changes than plausible plotting.
    Now, as the year draws to a close, we have The Brother from Another Planet. Another diamond-in-the-rough creation from independent filmmaker John Sayles, it focuses on the problems of a mute, three-toed humanoid who just happens to be black.
    The movie opens with the Brother (Joe Morton) dropping out of the sky and into Upper New York Bay, right between Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. He spends his first night in the abandoned Immigration Centre, a scene designed to show us his special healing powers and sensitivity to lingering spirits.
    With the dawn's early light, he makes his way to Harlem, and the centre of a lightly comic suspense thriller. No casual interplanetary tourist, this Brother is a spaceman on the run.
    Pursuing him are a sinister pair of black-clad mercenaries (John Sayles and David Strathairn) who move as if their expenses are being charged to John Cleese's Ministry of Silly Walks.
     “White folks,” a Harlem bar regular says of them. “(They) get stranger all the time.”
    Sayles, an A-list screenwriter who forsook Hollywood for his home town of Hoboken, likes to exercise full control over his film scripts. One of the most inventive minds currently involved in low-budget personal production, he originally took up direction to bring his Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) to the screen.
    In The Brother, he uses the filmgoing public's current interest in alien-contact tales to reconsider a bit of the American historical experience. Harlem, he reminds us, was once a terminus for Harriet Tubman's underground railroad, a destination of hope not only for the huddled masses of Europe, but for pre-Emancipation Southern blacks.
    This time, modern Harlem has attracted an interstellar runaway. The white meanies chasing him turn out to be merciless space slavers.
    Sayles takes what might have been a slam-bang exploitation film concept and turns it into a pleasantly unpredictable essay on the human condition. Episodic and full of quirky humour, this is the sort of picture that meanders about, enjoying its altered viewpoint.
     An apparent innocent, the mute Brother is everyone's tabula rasa. As a result, his story abounds in deft monologues and slyly satirical moments.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1984. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: It’s possible that John Sayles was working a riff on Polish-born man of letters Jerzy Kosinski’s 116-page satirical novel Being There. Published in 1970, it told the tale of Chance, a simple gardener who is everyone’s tabula rasa. Kosinski’s slim work
captured the American intellectual zeitgeist in the 1970s, and for a time it was the book that absolutely everybody had to read. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1979 movie. Director Hal Ashby’s Being There adaptation was success, earning Oscar nominations for its stars, Peter Sellers and Melvyn Douglas.
    I preferred the Sayles version. I’d met the man in 1981, when he visited Vancouver to promote his directorial debut feature The Return of the Secaucus Seven, and saw a lot to like. "Hollywood is a bit frightened of original ideas,” he said during our interview. He was making it his business to make the kind of idea-driven movies the big studios shunned.
    In 1983, the MacArthur Foundation recognized his vision by awarding him one of its “genius grants.” It provided him a tax-free income of $32,000 a year for five years. That, and his paycheque for writing the screenplay for 1986’s Clan of the Cave Bear, made it possible from him to finance his next feature project, the period drama Matewan. A 1987 release, it explored a corner of American labour history ignored by the resolutely anti-union film studios. A class-conscious artist, the Schenectady, New York-born writer-director makes movies more in keeping with the kitchen-sink realism of 1960 British cinema than corporate Hollywood. His body of work — 18 features to date — has earned him the enduring respect of movie mavens worldwide.

See also: Today we added four alien-infested titles to the Reeling Back archive: Alien3 from 1992; Alien Nation (1988); The Brother from Another Planet (1984) and Predator (1987).