Since today is John Sayles’ birthday, and I always write the article the day before, I ended up watching The Brother from Another Planet last night. I haven’t seen it since about the time it came out in 1984. I remembered liking it, but it didn’t affect me the way it did last night. It is absolutely a great film. It’s interesting. On Netflix, it’s average rating was 3.2 stars — pretty bad by Netflix user standards. It gave a “best guess” of 4.8 stars, and I ended up giving it 5 stars. I’m a pretty easy grader of films: I give out a lot of 4 star ratings, but 5 stars are rare.
The film is quite low budget — just $350,000 according to Wikipedia. And it has an episodic quality to it that could so easily turn into a boring mess. But it has what Coriolanus did not: a really compelling lead character, played perfectly by Joe Morton. It’s not that The Brother is nice and Coriolanus is not. I can be pulled through a narrative if there is something to be discovered about the main character. But there really is nothing to be learned about Coriolanus; he’s just an efficient warrior who is too filled with himself.
Of course in this film, we learn many things about The Brother. The most important thing we learn is that he is an escaped slave from another planet. And this is disclosed when he takes the little boy to an art exhibit featuring images from American slavery. It’s a beautiful moment. But there are others that range from sweet to silly, such as his detachable eye that stores video — kind of the 1984 version of Google Glasses.
It’s hard not to keep comparing The Brother from Another Planet with Coriolanus. The two films are almost complete opposites. Coriolanus is all about how a single remarkable man goes about maximizing his freedom with total disdain for the freedom of others. The Brother is all about a far more remarkable man who is worried about the freedom of everyone. And ultimately, his altruism causes the community to rally around him and assure his own freedom.
Much of the second half of the film is about The Brother becoming something of a private detective to find out the source of drugs on the street. This too is presented as a kind of slavery, as indeed it is — even if I think it is not so much the pushers as the laws of the power elite that enslave people.
Above all, The Brother from Another Planet is a romp — and a very funny one too. It is the most creative fish out of water film I’ve ever seen. You don’t need to see that it provides a kind of gritty utopian vision of the world to fall in love with it. Of course, if you are looking for realism or serious science fiction, you won’t find it here. The Brother from Another Planet is more like a fable or a tall tale. I think it is a wonderful film for kids too, but I just checked and it is rated “R” for “language, some drug content, and brief nudity.” Maybe so, but there is an opportunity cost: your children will miss out on this beautiful imagining of the world as it could be. Regardless, more adults need to see it. We can make the world a better place — together.