Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Brother From Another Planet

by Drew Martin

I recently watched The Brother From Another Planet (1984) for the first time. Despite a lot of bad acting and an almost unwatchable ending, I really like what it was trying to do. If any movie deserves a good remake, it is this one.

This film is a kind of sci-fi take on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Both main characters end up in Harlem, which simultaneously rejects and embraces them, and both stories are rooted in the American slave narrative.

Aside from having padded feet with three horny toes, the brother, who is a runaway alien slave, resembles a man of African descent. He is pursued by two white-guy aliens referred to as men in black, who are the predecessors to the agents in The Matrix.

The beginning of the film is fantastic. The first scene is inside the capsule of an alien starship speeding towards Earth. Joe Morton plays the sole, panicky cosmonaut. The minimal, cheap effects actually work really well. There are a few beeping lights, some kind of illuminated extraterrestrial script and a lot of splicing back and forth to the anxious Morton.

The music in this scene (and peppered throughout the movie) is Caribbean steel drum, which is a perfect sound to give the pummeling of the metal capsule as it tumbles down, especially because of the increased tempo. It is a playful sound that makes the tense scene quite edgy.

For a brief moment we see a clear, evening sky. A blip flashes across it like a shooting star and the brother splashes down in the New York harbor.

With the Statue of Liberty in the background he crawls up onto Ellis Island. He is dripping wet and profusely bleeding because he lost a leg in the crash. The stump is quickly mended with energy from his hand and the lower leg and foot grow back by morning. The brother possesses such healing powers, which he uses to earn some cash by fixing broken electronic devices, particularly video game kiosks. One of the treats of the film is getting a glimpse of where we were with computer graphics over a quarter of a century ago.

In addition to the slave narrative and a subtheme about drugs, this is definitely a insightful film about communication.

The brother cannot speak. I do not know if this is a limitation of his species or that he was permanently silenced as a slave (I gathered the latter). In the end of the film, the brother meets other runaways and they are all dumb. The white pursuers speak and have some kind of screeching sound they make when they are agitated.

Despite the inability to talk, the brother understands multiple languages and, more importantly, can retrieve past conversations embedded in objects. At the abandoned Ellis Island Immigration Center, the brother is overwhelmed by a cacophony of voices/languages when he touches the interior surfaces of the building. A column in a subway station recalls the screams of a woman pushed to her death on the tracks. A discarded newspaper is of interest of him not because of the headlines or photographs but because he can retrieve the dialogue of a man who was holding it. All objects for this alien are saturated with past sounds. He reacts to seats and walls that silently witnessed tragic events as if he has touched a hot iron skillet.

When the brother wants to track a drug dealer, he actually removes his eyeball and leaves it behind in a planter to record the man's movements. He later retrieves his eye and pops it back into its socket and sees a playback of the events in his mind. In another moment he takes out his eyeball and places it in the hand of a corporate man dealing in drugs in order to show him what he witnessed first hand, the dead body of a young punk who overdosed with this man's junk.

One of my favorite scenes is when the brother first sees a wall in Harlem with graffiti. It is as if he is confused by what it is trying to say, assuming it is meant for communication beyond tagging. Finally, he finds some red, scribbled graffiti that he recognizes as a sign of his people. He cuts open the palm of his hand and leaves a message at that site with his own blood.

The film would have worked better without a lot of the heavy-handed social commentary because the best scenes are of this alien brother trying to make sense of his new world. He is constantly processing his environment.

His first mistake is to eat fruit off a stand without paying for it and he is chased away. When he observes how money is exchanged for goods, he returns to the same shop, takes money out of the register and tries to pay for more fruit only to be chased off again, not understanding his expanded crime.