The year 1984 was a good one in cinematic history. It yielded many memorable films: Ghostbusters, The Terminator, The Karate Kid, The Neverending Story and, of course, 1984. It also spawned the cult classic The Brother from Another Planet, written and directed by indie film legend John Sayles and playing this weekend at PSU’s Fifth Avenue Cinema.
This charming science fiction tale follows a mute fugitive alien—known only as The Brother—trying to survive the streets of Harlem while evading arrest by space bounty hunters.
One of the most beautiful aspects about this movie is its dialogue—or rather, its lack of dialogue. The Brother never makes a sound in this movie: He never talks, screams, yelps or laughs. He mimes, opens his mouth wide, jumps and smiles instead.
Joe Morton (Terminator 2, Speed, Eureka), the actor who portrays this silent character, was given the difficult task of giving personality and emotion to an alien who cannot make sounds, scarcely understands English and is constantly befuddled by human customs and traditions like shaking hands or cutting a deck of cards.
With such a different approach to communication, so much of how The Brother acts can be left to interpretation. People he comes into contact with are confused by his lack of response and blank expression at first, but after a minute or two they feel free to project their emotions onto him.
The Brother listens to them, and people are left to their own monologues, which garner him friends of the male and female variety. The fact that The Brother listens to and respects what people have to say gains him friends in an otherwise-hostile neighborhood.
Other times, people ascribe feelings to him and, because he never corrects them, they assume they are right and react accordingly.
The film’s choreography is another unexpected gem. There is no dancing in this film, but there are fight scenes and disturbingly synchronized alien bounty hunters. (The fight scene might as well be a dance.) The actors punch, kick and flail as if they were on Broadway, and at one point The Brother leaps over two men. It’s a truly beautiful thing to witness.
The two bounty hunters (one of whom is played by Sayles), on the other hand, leave an unsettling impression. Everything they do is in tandem: They walk, they run, they drink beer, they even put their sunglasses on together.
Unlike many quirky science fiction movies to come out of the ’80s, Brother’s soundtrack is surprisingly unique. A good portion of the soundtrack consists of steel drums, an unusual instrument outside of movies set in tropical locations. In fact, Sayles said that he chose the steel drums for their technological yet organic sounds.
Sayles also said he was musically influenced by the zither music in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Traditionally speaking, neither the steel drum nor the zither is used in times of anxiety, suspense or action, yet somehow they do an even better job than the orchestra.
It would be unfair to classify Brother as of any one genre, as it exhibits a variety of genre elements. The film is comedic in that some scenes, actions or reactions are so outlandish one can’t help but laugh out loud. Brother could even be dubbed subtly satiric, the way it addresses social issues from the ’80s—mostly those pertaining to race and social class—from the perspective of a complete outsider.
More than anything, though, it’s the little cult classic that could: Brother grossed more than 12 times what it cost to make. Compare that to James Cameron’s Avatar, which grossed 11 times its budget.
Sayles has been a rather prolific filmmaker in the 34 years he’s been making movies. He’s directed 17 films and written 33. Two of his films, Passion Fish and Lone Star, were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
The Brother from Another Planet is a heart-warming, frequently hilarious sci-fi cult movie that showcases phenomenal acting from Morton and a unique soundtrack.