NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with director John Sayles.
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
The films of John Sayles share little between them in terms of plot elements or setting (Lone Star, The Secret of Roan Inish, Eight Men Out, Limbo) but they do share an intellectual bent and a curiosity about the way people relate to one another. The film of his that may break his passion for human behavior down into its most primitive, basic elements is also one of his strangest films: 1984's The Brother From Another Planet. Part sci-fi alien-among-us flick, part urban exploration, part sober character study, Brother is a unique blend of genres that gels thanks to the keen observations of Sayles' script and Joe Morton's classic performance as the Brother.
Kicking off with some unforgettably cheap spaceship interiors, The Brother From Another Planet finds a nameless alien (human-looking in form, except for huge feet that look like a cross between Mickey Mouse and a chicken) crash landing between Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Standing in the then-neglected main hall of the Ellis Island immigrant processing facility the Brother hears the murmurs of the generations of tired, poor huddled masses that also found entry way to a new world there.
He makes his way into the city, inexplicably landing on 125th street in Harlem. During the course of the film the Brother meets a wide variety of people (the resident bar-flies of a dive, two lost Midwestern academics, a card-trick hustler, a R&B singer on her way down) and learns about this new place from each of them. The Brother, however, is completely mute, something that nearly everyone notices at first. Instead of finding this odd, however, everyone he meets takes this as their chance to project whatever they need onto him: He's a good listener as they unload all of their worries, theories and feelings onto him. Morton plays this character perfectly, using his lack of dialog to his advantage. Instead of becoming a passive character, Morton creates a character who listens actively: You can see his mind working, trying to understand everything he sees and hears.
Certain early lessons that the Brother learns (about money, about violence) are a bit simplistic and blatantly symbolic, but that's the level he's at. The more time he spends in Harlem the more complex his world gets. By the time a well-meaning white rookie cop tries to chat him up the Brother's world-view has been sufficiently affected by his surroundings that can only shrug him off.
There's another reason why the Brother can't warmly greet this cop. Throughout the film two mysterious "men in black" played by director Sayles and David Strathairn, wander through Harlem looking for the Brother. They can speak but every time they open their mouths such strange words come out that they actually connect less than the mute Brother. This is partly because of their off-kilter use of the English language (obviously not their native alien tongue), their harsh, inquisitor style and, frankly, the fact that they are white authority figures hunting down a black man that many in Harlem have rightly taken to be some sort of refugee (many think him an illegal alien, an assumption they can't possible imagine is as accurate as it is.) They protect the Brother in the insular way a tight community closes ranks around threatened members, even though they barely know the guy and have never heard him speak.
A revelation as to why the men in black are hunting the Brother eventually comes and it illuminates the film and the historical angle that Sayles brings to the picture. He's clearly using the past to comment on the present, but he does it in a way that's surprisingly subtle given the straight-forward style of the film. Only one sequence is overly didactic (when a Rastafarian lectures the Brother on the darkness of man: "The nighttime is promise") in a film that passes up numerous opportunities to hit the audience over the head. Sayles' work here is deceptively simple but sly and smart. Scenes employ great humor (particularly any scene in the bar) but still drive home the point that there are aliens within our own society, people who don't feel like they belong and who have to build their own society.
This disc comes as part of a John Sayles restoration project undertaken by IFC Films last year. The restored print here looks really wonderful, with young Ernest Dickerson's lively cinematography effectively rendered for the first time in a home video format (previous VHS and DVD releases have been DREADFUL.) The anamorphic widescreen picture is nearly a revelation. While it still displays the film's low-budget and there is some dirt on the print, it looks really excellent.
The Dolby Digital Mono is true to the original soundtrack but it's of course a modest affair. Mason Daring's steel drum score is effective but the range of the film's soundtrack is limited and dialog is a bit muted at times. The English subtitles sometimes help. Spanish subtitles are also included.
A couple of nice extras: A typically smart commentary from Sayles really gets into the themes and inspiration for the film. He's a touch dry but his thoughts are well-developed and the track is informative and entertaining. A video interview with Sayles and producer/partner Maggie Renzi, which also covers some of the story behind the film. A trailer for Sayles' upcoming Casa de los Babys is also included.
A personal favorite and a stand-out in Sayles' impressive filmography, The Brother From Another Planet has long deserved the treatment it gets here. This cheap DVD doesn't overload on extra features but it does offer a quality commentary and, most importantly, a beautiful print of this important and unique film. Hopefully this quiet, soulful movie can gain a new audience on DVD.
NOTE: If you buy this disc, make sure you get the NEW 2003 MGM release, not the old Image release