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Film Review: The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

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“A slave from outer space escapes to earth. Except for his three-toed feet, he looks like an ordinary young black man. He crash-lands on Ellis Island, appropriately enough, and ends up in Harlem. There he makes friends with the owner and the regulars of a bar. Because he can fix any machine (by simply touching it), he’s able to make money. He’s mute, which proves more of an advantage than a disadvantage, and he can heal himself and others with nothing but his hands. His real troubles begin when two extraterrestrial bounty hunters attempt to recapture him and bring him back to where he came from.” (courtesy IMDB)

As some of you already know, I try to keep my readers brains on their toes by occasionally slipping in a good film. This is one such occasion! Would I lie to you? Would I lie about this: This film is from an Oscar-nominated director and screenwriter, although he didn’t get the nomination for this particular film. I’m talking about The Brother From Another Planet (1984) written and directed by John Sayles and starring the extremely talented Joe Morton as the mute alien looking for a new home, only to find the same prejudices here on Earth.

Produced for only US$350,000, a tiny fraction of the spectacular budgets afforded to science fiction films at the time, The Brother From Another Planet also features Steve James, Leonard Jackson, Bill Cobbs, Fisher Stevens, with David Strathairn and John Sayles himself as a pair of hilarious alien Men In Black sent to apprehend our hero.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy witnessing my old friend Joe Morton as yet another alien stranded here on Earth but, unlike E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), this alien has absolutely no interest in returning to his home planet. Joe made his Broadway debut in Hair and has since appeared in more than seventy films, including Trouble In Mind (1985), Terminator II Judgment Day (1991) and Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), with forty television shows with regular roles in Eureka, The Good Wife, CSI New York, Law And Order, Smallville, The Equalizer and my personal favourite, Mercy Point, a short-lived science fiction series about a Hospital Space Station on the outskirts of the solar system. Admittedly, he was also in Search For Tomorrow, Another World and All My Children, but we’ve all done embarrassing things when we’re drunk, right?

David Strathairn, who plays the shorter of the two Men In Black, was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Edward R. Morrow in Good Night And Good Luck (2005). He made his movie debut in John Sayles’ Return Of The Secaucus Seven (1979) and subsequently appeared in many other Sayles films including the award-winning Matewan (1987), City Of Hope (1991), Passion Fish (1992) and Limbo (1999). Other notable films include Sneakers (1992), The Firm (1993), The River Wild (1994), Dolores Claiborne (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), Twisted (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008). The last time I saw David Strathairn he had a regular role in the hit television series The Sopranos.

Steve James, who plays Odell, started as a stuntman specialising in films starting with the letter ‘W’, namely The Wiz (1978), The Warriors (1979), The Wanderers (1979) and Wolfen (1981), and became good friends with director William Friedkin and fellow actor Michael Dudikoff on the set of American Ninja (1985), which didn’t start with ‘W’ and was therefore a turning point in his career. James sadly passed away of cancer in 1993 at the terribly young age of 41, his final role being the pilot episode of the superfluous superhero series MANTIS which went to air just three weeks after his death.

Bill Cobbs made his rambling debut in the 1974 heist adventure The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974), and has since been a regular rambler in many television shows including The Outer Limits, The Sopranos, The Others, JAG, and The Drew Carey Show. More recently he could be heard rambling in Rob Reiner’s Ghosts Of Mississippi (1996), Tom Hanks’ That Thing That You Rambled (1996), and the Cohen brothers The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), but many of you would recognise him as one of the seemingly senile security guards in Night At The Museum (2006) rambling alongside Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney.

The card trickster we meet on the train happens to be one of my favourite second-bananas of all-time, the prolific and ever-youthful Fisher Stevens. You may remember him as George Minkowski in search of the mysterious island in the popular television series Lost, or as the Pakistani robotics engineer in the Short Circuit (1986) films, or maybe as Dennis Hopper’s henchman in the utterly confusing Super Mario Brothers (1993) movie, or as Chuck Fishman in the seminal television series Early Edition. Personally, I remember being impressed with his performance as a murderous Steven Spielberg-style Hollywood director in an excellent episode of Columbo. I’ll get back to the murderous Mr. Spielberg in a minute.

A fascinating cast indeed but, arguably, the real star of The Brother From Another Planet is director John Sayles who, like so many other great filmmakers, began his career with the crux of our civilisation, Roger Corman. After writing such cult classics as Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980), Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) and The Howling (1981) for Corman, Sayles used his earnings and learnings to fund his own feature film, Return Of The Secaucus Seven: He set the entire film in a single house, it takes place over three days to limit costume changes, and he deliberately wrote about people his own age so he could cast his friends in it, thus starting a trend amongst low-budget filmmakers that continues today. As well as writing and directing his own films, he was chosen, with fellow director Brian DePalma, to make several music videos for Bruce Springsteen and his E-Street Band, including Born In The USA, Glory Days, and the sadly metaphorical I’m On Fire.

Having collaborated with director Joe Dante on The Howling and Piranha, Sayles was cast in Matinee (1993) alongside Dick Miller as two men hired by John Goodman to protest against his own film to rustle-up publicity. This was a tactic originally employed by Roger Corman, William Castle and Bert I. Gordon, which has since become standard practice in Hollywood today. Sayles gets the rest of his funding by working as a script consultant, rewriting major films like The Fugitive (1993), Mimic (1997) and Apollo 13 (1995), which featured Roger Corman in the cast. One such script, Night Skies, directly inspired what would eventually become the box-office smash-hit E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), directed by the murderous Steven Spielberg, as played by Fisher Stevens. This fact neatly leads me back to The Brother From Another Planet which, despite the difference of two years and about twenty million dollars, is often compared to E.T The Extra-Terrestrial, which was still running in many cinemas around the world when The Brother From Another Planet was released anyway.

The Brother From Another Planet shows how we can confuse a person’s silence with compassion or empathy, but John Sayles doesn’t really handle these issues with his usual class. At first he seems more concerned with the comedy aspects, then changes lanes turning it into a morality play concerning drug dealers, the end result feeling more like an educational film than anything resembling drama – there’s nothing like an important social message to bore the pants of you. But since you’re still reading, I know I can count on your company again next week when we have another opportunity to contemplate Hollywood’s horror-filled belly-button for…Horror News! Toodles!

The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

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