In a decade defined by social and political alienation, John Sayles' lo-fi sci-fi adventure embraced spontaneous spiritual connections.
ere come the men in black: before Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, there were David Straitharn and John Sayles. Of all the characters populating the bustling, Koch-era New York City symphony of The Brother From Another Planet—a film with dozens of speaking roles for a large and multicultural ensemble cast—these nameless, gormless bounty hunters, who’ve arrived on Earth to track and capture Joe Morton’s eponymous, black-passing extra-terrestrial, are the only ones who completely evade our sympathies. Loping blithely through Harlem like pale, slicked-back kangaroos—and at one point stopping to converse in shrieks that split the difference between Day of the Dolphin (1973) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)—the duo are goofy without being endearing. Their presence in the narrative as villains (and ultimately self-destructing punchlines) is a tell: it suggests the Schenectady-born Sayles’ reckoning with his status as a Caucausian filmmaker while trying to engineer a contemporary and clear-eyed urban allegory about race relations. Or as one wizened African-American observer puts it succinctly after glimpsing the MIBs at work: "White folks get stranger all the time."
Released in 1984, The Brother From Another Planet is at once more and less explicitly Spielbergian in its operations than John Carpenter’s similarly plotted Starman, also released the same year, eschewing its rival’s agape for something closer to existential deadpan. Sayles, who financed the movie with the proceeds from a 1983 MacArthur genius grant, talked about it in interviews as a politicized thrift-store riff on Spielberg’s then-recent and culture-shifting E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)—a sly bit of turnabout considering that that film had been partially based on Sayles' screenplay Night Skies. More generally, the idea seemed to be that in an era of expensive special effects, The Brother From Another Planet was an example of sci-fi without the spectacle: a combination throwback to a pre-Star Wars cycle of intellectual, allegorical sci-fi, i.e., The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which critiqued the status quo. You could do worse to sketch the dialectics of ’80s American cinema than to use Spielberg and Sayles as antipodal figures— the studio-backed showman vs. the microbudget polemicist—except that their career paths offered plenty of crossover in the previous decade. Take away the car chases and Spielberg’s 1974 feature film debut The Sugarland Express hews closer to Sayles’ output; it has the same curiosity in local customs and characters, and some of the same love of eccentricity.
In 1978, Sayles—whose left-wing politics gladly drew him to the subversions of monster movies— shrewdly reconstituted the raw materials of Jaws (1975) in his script for Joe Dante’s Piranha, a cheapo exploitation picture that doubled as a toothy satire and cannibalizing cash-in of its source material. However, the proverbial empire struck back when Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) collaborator Lawrence Kasdan blatantly ripped off the structure and scenario of Sayles’ melancholy countercultural chamber piece The Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) in the form of The Big Chill (1983). That middlebrow crowd pleaser, powered by choice Motown cuts, never copped to its own plagiarism or banality, with Kasdan swapping out Sayles’ finely fissured group dynamics for movie-star mugging and trickle-down Boomer affirmations.
To the extent that it’s a film made under the sign of E.T., Brother means its predecessor no harm—unlike, say, Dante’s mischievous and misanthropic creature feature Gremlins (1984). But it does make the point of having the Brother connect with a sympathetic pre-adolescent boy, a la Henry Thomas’ Elliott, only to drop their friendship (and plotline) midway—a slap to audience expectations that’s also a retrenchment of Sayles’ panoramic, storytelling style. Arriving first at Ellis Island and overwhelmed by his new surroundings, the whippet-lean and dreadlocked Morton is very much a symbol of the immigrant experience, right down to his (literal) voicelessness and vulnerability to his well-armed pursuers. But if the script’s organizing metaphor is broad and obvious, the dramaturgy is subtle and sharp, privileging granular, street-level encounters that allow Sayles to show off his novelist’s gift for characterization and dialogue over any grand statements about the nation’s psyche.
In order for a movie like this to work, the lead performance has to be perfectly calibrated, and Morton—whose mainstream breakthrough on the soap opera Another World ended up being referenced via the film’s ingenious, commercially viable title—is as extraordinary as necessary. The brilliance of his acting is less a case of hollowing out the Brother into a cipher than turning him into an antenna. There are several moments when you can feel him taking on or channeling the energies of his various scene partners, suggesting transference without resorting to simple mimicry. Even more importantly, Morton forgoes easy, wide-eyed signifiers of innocence and naïveté in playing a character who proves a quick study in human affairs. There is, perhaps, something diagrammatic about some of the Brother’s adventures, like his seductions by a nightclub starlet (introduced via a faux-Godardian commodity-fetishism montage) and a Rastafarian drug pusher, as well as his late transformation into a kind of sci-fi Blaxploitation avenger. But Morton redeems Sayles’ clumsier conceits and fully inhabits his best ones, including several talky, affectionate group interludes at a dilapidated neighborhood bar and a run-in on the subway with a teenaged card sharp (Fisher Stevens) whose Ricky-Jayish patter builds to a hilarious, perfectly-timed zinger.
With box office returns of over $4 million dollars, The Brother From Another Planet was easily the biggest hit of Sayles’ career, and it positioned him alongside the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee in the decade’s emerging indie vanguard. (He even shared a cinematographer with Lee in the form of Ernest Dickerson, whose luridly stylized color palette here would carry over to Do The Right Thing ). But for whatever reason, the one-time poster boy for DIY filmmaking has become a kind of forgotten man, if not a footnote to his industry. Charges of stolidity have always dogged Sayles' directorial work, as if a pedestrian but workmanlike craft could cancel out his palpable intelligence and ingenuity. It's also been suggested that Sayles’ overwhelmingly good intentions mark him as a liberal dupe—charges on which no thinking jury would think to convict. Unlike some leftists of convenience, Sayles isn’t about platitudes or solutions, or even partisan politics; he once told me in an interview that his only goal is never to be “socially unconscious.” In The Brother From Another Planet, his alertness leads to a movie teeming with currents of philosophical and metaphysical excitement (it’s easy to imagine a young Richard Linklater taking notes); the script scores its points under its breath and on the fly in glancing, funny increments. To once again cite Spielberg, The Brother From Another Planet slyly redefines the idea of Close Encounters: its namesake’s alienation reflects back on us. While by no means a perfect movie, it’s a brilliant one; in lieu of escapist fantasy or fashionable dystopia, it uses the tropes of sci-fi to limn a reality that already exists at the outer limits of our imagination. With apologies to the flawless neo-noir Lone Star (1996), Brother is Sayles’ masterpiece: American Babylon as a kind of Twilight Zone, a picaresque portrait drenched in neon and nightshade.
The Brother From Another Planet is available to stream for free on Tubi, Pluto TV, PLEX, and the Roku Channel. It's also available to stream on YouTube with a subscription to IFC Films Unlimited and Amazon Prime with a subscription to Fandor.
Adam Nayman is a critic, author and lecturer based in Toronto. He writes for The Ringer, Cinema Scope and The New Yorker and teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto. He has written books on the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Fincher.