Brother from Another Planet March 15, 2021
etails about the title character of John Sayles’ charming but overlong comedy Brother from Another Planet (1984) are scarce. We know that his discreet spaceship crash lands on Earth — specifically Ellis Island — at the beginning of the film. He can heal wounds by resting a finger on the slash and concentrating. (He has a similar curative touch with broken technology — don’t retire a tuckered-out pinball machine until
he’s seen it.) He cannot speak but understands every word you’re saying in part because he can also read your mind. When he leans against certain objects he can somehow “feel” their histories. He has three toes; their nails peak in spiky points. He can remove an eyeball with the ease of someone thumbing a battery from the back of a remote. A couple definitely-alien “immigration officers” (played by David Strathairn and Sayles) are looking for him. We'll never know why he came to Earth.
The conceit of the movie — too simple to keep one’s interest for the length of a feature-length film — mostly involves this clean slate of a “man” adjusting to Earth’s many vagaries. (One complication lies in how this unnamed alien, played with the right amount of sweetness by Joe Morton, is Black. In addition to adapting to various social expectations he also observes there will be some situations where his race can engender hostility.) Aside from the almost lackadaisically written immigration-officer subplot, there isn’t much else to Brother from Another Planet besides its eponymous character pinging to and from disparate social situations.
This agreeably laid-back science-fiction movie has a good ear for dialogue — the brother is a sponge for overheard conversations and nervous chatter from the person across from him digesting the unexpected news that he is mute. Sayles sensibly doesn't over-broaden the array of fish-out-of-water comic scenes. (You could see things descending into folksy silent-movie-style slapstick.) If anything, Brother from Another Planet is a UV light as a movie; it lays bare how absurd certain social norms are once divorced of their context. There is some fun to be had seeing mundanities through a totally blank purview: the brother’s puzzled look upon seeing a woman’s red-painted toenails peeking out from a gold sandal; a kid carefully peeling a bandage from a scratched knee; the brother getting accosted by a kooky subway patron who has a card trick to show off. But the movie didn’t need to be 10 minutes short of two hours: a premise like this one is better equipped for the less-is-more ethos of the short film. There comes a point in the film — toward its middle, I’d say — where we’ve figured we’ve gotten the idea. (Sayles’ otherwise perceptive direction terminally ambles.) Our curiosity depletes before the journey has ended — or has just begun. B