Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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The Brother From Another Planet (1984)


When John Sayles went looking for financing for his 1984 film The Brother from Another Planet, the following conversation probably did not take place.

But it should have.

Secretary: Mr. Z———, there’s a man here to see you about making a movie. His name’s –

Studio Mogul: What kinda movie?

Secretary: I, uh, think he said something about, uh, science fiction.

Mogul: Young punk? Boy wonder? Look anything like Spielberg?

Secretary: Sort of, I guess, except, well…um…he’s got this kind of weird…uh….grin.

Mogul: They’re all weird. The Weirdo Generation, they oughta call ‘em. All those Sixties-Sergeant-Pepper-Up-Your-Nose punks. They should’ve stayed on the communes where they belonged. I could’ve been doing remakes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington instead of bankrolling chandeliers from outer space and seven-foot fur balls….Ah, what the hell, send him in. The last weirdo I laughed at made more money than the U.S. Treasury….

Mogul: You’re in luck, kid. Sci-fi’s in this year. How much do you want? Ten million? Twenty? Hell, we gave this one guy forty million for giant worms and guys in welding suits.

John Sayles: $200,000?

Mogul: Who you planning on casting? High school students? Harrison Ford doesn’t even read scripts for that kind of money.

Sayles: Joe Morton.

Mogul: Who?

Sayles: Say, he’s a fine actor. And I’ve lined up some good local talent. Nice little role for myself, too.

Mogul: So who needs DeNiro, right? Where you plan on shooting this space epic—New Jersey?

Sayles: Harlem.

Mogul: Say what?

Sayles: Harlem. In bars. Alleyways. Cheap apartments. Video arcades.

Mogul: Let me guess. Giant bloodthirsty white alien vampires disguise themselves as Pac Man games and terrorize the ghetto, right?

Sayles: No giant aliens.

Mogul: Thousands of tiny bloodsucking alien vampires?

Sayles: One black guy, mainly. With three toes. Couple of white guys dressed in black. Couple of old black men on barstools. You get the idea.

Mogul: The alien’s black?

Sayles: Yeah, sort of Rastafarian-looking. Walks funny.

Mogul: Rasta-what-ian? While you’re going all out, why don’t you make him a deaf & mute, dress funny, and fix Pac Man machines for a living?

Sayles: He’s not deaf.

Mogul: But he’s mute, dresses funny, and fixes Pac Man machines for a living?

Sayles: Yeah.

Mogul: And the white guys dressed in black? They also fix Pac Man machines for a living?

Sayles: No, they’re Slavers.

Mogul: Oh.

Sayles: And they walk funny, order beer on the rocks, and make nasty feral cat sounds when they’re not imitating Jack Webb.

Mogul: You’re not really here, are you? I’m really home in bed and you’re just a nightmare caused by something I ate. Please say “yes”.

Sayles: ‘Fraid not. But you’ll be happy to hear that the special effects shouldn’t be a problem.

Mogul: Let me guess. They’re all gonna put on space suits and do card tricks.

Sayles: No space suits. And just the kid does card tricks.

Mogul: What kid?

Sayles: This fifteen-year-old white kid in the subway train the alien catches.

Mogul: Now I know you’re something I ate. But just in case you’re real, I’m warning you I may have to kill you before this conversation is over.

Sayles: Are you interested in the plot?

Mogul: Does a bowling ball have hair?

Sayles: Because the alien doesn’t speak, everybody he meets feels obliged to fill in the silence with what’s most on their minds. They get to like him because he gives them a chance to talk to themselves. They even try to protect him from the men in black.

Mogul: Damn, we could have another Star Wars here. Enough there for three, maybe four sequels. TV series. Paperbacks. Merchandise. Don’t miss a trick do you? Let me guess: no sex, no gory violence, some comedy, lots of dialogue? Exploit the masses to the hilt, eh? Probably even want to toss in some good photography and a catchy sound track?

Sayles: Yeah. And the eyeball.

Mogul: Eyeball?

Sayles: The one that spies on the pusher. The one the alien pulls out of his eye socket and sticks in the planter….

Mogul: [incoherent response, possible apoplectic seizure]


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

The paradigm of the independent American filmmaker, specializing in moving, intelligent ensemble films about small people dealing with large problems. Originally (and still) a novelist and short story writer, he quixotically broke into films writing genre scripts, at firs for Roger Corman; typically, they stood out for their humor and cockeyed viewpoints.” Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia

As befits a connoisseur of extended groups and variegated perspectives, John Sayles is himself a mass of men—not just a director of essentially independent films rooted in good talk, character study, and social reflection, but the writer of take-the-money-and-run screenplays; an odd, droll actor; a writer of fiction; A MacArthur Foundation fellow; and an altogether earnest, likeable, hard-working example to other independents.” –David Thompson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

You just gotta love artists who manage to go their own unpredictable ways, seemingly oblivious to the dictates of the so-called marketplace, yet ultimately astonishingly successful in making their visions realities. My personal list of such artists would include Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, the Coen brothers, and John Sayles. In the latter case, we have a man who moves gracefully between novels like Union Dues, scripts for Piranha and The Clan of the Cave Bears, juicy little acting roles in films like Something Wild, and award-winning films like The Return of the Secaucus Seven and Eight Men Out. He started out as a writer, paying his way by working as a day laborer, a nursing home attendant, and a meat packer in a sausage factory.

The Brother from Another Planet was the first John Sayles film I reviewed, but by no means the last. Over the years I’ve also sung the praises of Matewan, Eight Men Out, and The Secret of Roan Innish (1994). I knew I’d have no second thoughts going back to Brother after all these years.

This film proves that it’s possible to make a fine science fiction film with a lot of heart instead of a pile of money. Total budget: $350,000. It’s the kind of thought-provoking parallel storytelling that many of the best Star Trek episodes (through the many incarnations of the series), Twilight Zone episodes, and Night Gallery episodes pulled off time and again—hitting themes such as racism, terrorism, revolution, sexual identity, religious faith, and ethical dilemmas that conventional television dramas avoided like the plague. There were times where I was sure that the corporate TV sponsors were clueless as to the potent allegories & parables flashing across their screens.

The Brother from Another Planet is about an alien stranded in Harlem, but it’s also about slavery and the Underground Railway. It’s a plea for humanity disguised as a dark comedy with voluble old curmudgeons in bars, harried single moms, hustlers, cute kids, really lost white guys, and reptilian villains (the original “men in black”). I’ll chalk it up to serendipity that Joe Morton’s performance as the alien brother turned up on several of the critics’ lists for The Best Black Performances of All Time on the BFI website I’m featuring with this updated review.

I think the only thing that’s changed for me is that with this last viewing the melancholy struck me as strongly as did the humour. There’s a happy ending, of sorts. But there are some unhappy ones as well, and some that held promises unfulfilled. I can’t help comparing the final shots of The Brother from Another Planet with those of Runaway Train. They’re both about ambiguous states of freedom.

In the end, though, I’m still smiling. I can’t do anything else when a filmmaker is so confident that our shared humanity can win out over our self-interest.

Don’t overlook the fine soundtrack by Martin Brody and long-time Sayles musical collaborator Mason Daring.

Movie Information

Genre: Science Fiction
Director: John Sayles
Actors: Joe Morton, Maggie Renzi, Fisher Stevens, Ray Ramirez, Steve James, Bill Cobbs, Leonard Jackson, David Strathairn, John Sayles
Year: 1984
Original Review: February 1988


The British Film Institute (BFI)

Another treasure trove for cinephiles. The BFI was founded in 1933, and is best represented by the publication Sight & Sound. An online subscription costs about $50, and access to the complete Sight & Sound archives is available for about $30. While the films offered for free on the site don’t seem to be accessible using a standard Canadian server, other short videos such as interviews with actors & directors do play normally. The home page offers in-depth examinations of all things cinema. At the time I wrote this summary there were several articles relating to “Black Britain on Film,” including annotated lists such as “The Best Black Performances of all Time.” There’s a featured film of the week (such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence, complete with a primer on his films), and access to annotated lists such as “The 50 Greatest Films of All Time,” “10 Great British Films Directed by Women,” and “10 Great Films about Christianity,” “10 Great British Gay Films,” “10 Great Dark Suburbia Films”, and almost 400 other lists. In the online section of the BFI Archives you’ll find selections such as “Charlie Chaplin Resources.” Last but not least, there’s an Education section that features Classroom Resources for Teachers on topics such as “Sci-fi in the Classroom” and Media Literacy.

Films Worth Talking About:

Stranger Than Paradise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Amadeus, To Our Loves (A nos amours), Carmen, Romancing the Stone, Terms of Endearment, Ghostbusters, Paris Texas, Once Upon a Time in America, The Fourth Man, The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Killing Fields, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, This is Spinal Tap, Splash, Purple Rain, Repo Man, Body Double, The Natural, Les Ripoux, A Sunday in the Country, The Old Rifle (le Vieux Fusil)

The Bigger Picture

Films: Diva (1981), Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Do the Right Thing (1989), Being There (1979)

Music: anything by John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett

Books: John Sayles, Pride of the Bimbos, Union Dues, Los Gusanos, The Anarchist’s Convention, Thinking in Pictures [about the making of his film Matewan]; Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Mumbo Jumbo

The Word on the Street

“odd, quiet, and very watchable”


“the card trick on the subway is one of my all-time favorites”

TuesdayNight (mine, too)

“How often do you see a movie in which the lead character never utters one word?”


“the music sound track is just gorgeous- mostly light reggae, dub, and light jazz. Just wonderful, and now it is back in print too- on CD. Marvelous!”