Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: The Brother From Another Planet

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, November 30, 2011

“Man might be Haitian. Them Haitians got diseases, man. Voodoo germs.”

“You drank outta that glass he touched, Smokey.”

Special features

Commentary Track7
Featurette6
Trailer3

An extremely lesser-known movie, but very well directed (John Sayles) and acted (Joe Morton). It’s a movie about different worlds in a very literal as well as metaphorical sense!

RecommendationPurchase
DirectorJohn Sayles
WriterJohn Sayles
Movie Rating7
Transfer Quality6
Overall Rating6
Formats
  • Enhanced Widescreen
Speeding up Astro Chase

“Girl, nothing in this world fixes itself.”

John Sayles1 directed this movie that got good word of mouth and then went nowhere fast. About a black alien landing in Harlem and running from the precursors to Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. A very strange, somewhat disturbing story about assimilating into a new and strange culture.

A small spaceship carrying a frightened pilot crashes at Ellis Island. The pilot crawls out of the steaming sea with the Statue of Liberty in the background. He lost one foot in the crash, sheared right off. He lays glowing hands on himself and hops away on his one leg.

He hears the voices of the past in everything he touches. Which makes it difficult to sleep on the benches in the empty immigration center. So he sleeps on the floor. By morning, his sheared foot has returned.

With three toes.

He’s hungry; he learns to talk to a cash register so that he can exchange the cash inside for a pear. He understands machines far more than people: he figured out from watching that if he wanted a pear he needed to exchange the green slips of paper for them, but didn’t know where they came from or their significance. So he guessed, and guessed wrong.

That’s all in the first few minutes of the movie. Eventually the guy ends up in Harlem, in Odell’s, a bar that’s sort of the black mirror to Cheers. Everyone knows everyone’s name (Steve James, who plays the owner and only bartender, even bears a striking resemblance to Ted Danson) and they trade jokes and bullshit.

Fly: “Come back here, it’s all ‘dangerous’.”
Sam: “I never lived here, Fly.”
Odell: “Sam’s from Englewood.”
Fly: “Where’s that?”
Sam: “It’s in New Jersey.”
Fly: “You let people know that?”

When the unnamed slave on the run walks into Odell’s, Fly is playing the arcade game Astro Chase while the rest of the bar “discusses” space diseases.

As the movie progresses, he learns more and more about the people and the culture he’s crashed into—in effect, he assimilates as any immigrant needs to do.

Sam and Norm in Harlem

Where everybody knows your name.

The movie takes a lot of chances. From a Hollywood standpoint, the biggest might be that it’s very difficult to make an action movie where the main character can’t talk.2 Everything that we know about the unnamed protagonist, we have to learn from body language and the guesses of those around him.

I’m going to go out on a limb of my own here and say that despite its rep, this is not a message movie, other than perhaps that you can make great movies with almost all black casts just like you can with almost all white casts. It’s an action film with a lot of comedy thrown in; in a sense it’s several effective vignettes thrown together.

The impression we get is that the Brother is an escaped slave, most likely someone bred for the purpose of fixing electronic and biological devices—such as himself.

The message is not that blacks will be slaves even in space. At most, we get a message from the grandmother: “girl, nothing in this world fixes itself”. But that’s the kind of message you expect from an action movie, not a message movie. It’s why the hero has to act to fix things in the final reel. The reason this movie looks like more than an action flick is that the writer/director cares about the character as much as he does about the chases and the fights. So many action movies will abandon the character or even the premise if that’s what it takes to get a big explosion. There are no explosions in Brother.

Character, not messages. Sayles makes it deliberately clear from the start that this not Star Wars, and soon after we learn that, despite his abilities, he’s not Superman either. There is no leaping a building in a single bound. He’s a lost and confused escaped slave learning a completely alien culture. That’s part of what Sayles says he wants us to see: the mundane parts of our culture from an alien’s eyes.

From start to end, the special effects were very simple, sometimes to the point of being so natural I wasn’t aware there were any effects going on at all.

It seems appropriate that the effects were on a very human scale… whereas flashier effects, morphing or something like that, would seem outsized for the world that we were doing, less real than the realness of the world that we were working in.

White folks keep getting stranger

“White folks get stranger all the time.”

Sayles talks a lot about this in the commentary; if it’s the sort of thing that interests you, it’s a lot of fun to hear him describe how they handled the various scenes.

The one place where the movie doesn’t take chances is where it looks the most dated. I didn’t understand why an ad man in the Marine Midland building was openly dealing cocaine from his office; I mean, the guy had a desk covered in baggies in a fairly public office. Turns out it’s an exaggeration of an eighties thing, where (according to Sayles) many people got into dealing because it was the ‘in’ thing to do to keep your friends in coke. This guy apparently branched out. Unfortunately, while it provided a great bit for Joe Morton to act in, it came across as contrived. But it’s only a minor thing in an otherwise very good movie.

The commentary is very interesting. Sayles explains a lot about the movie thematically and technically. There’s a great story about how he got the crowd shots—they’re a combination of people who happened to be walking around and actors given specific things to do and say. How he and David Strathairn managed to get their Men in Black to look so alien is also fascinating.

The featurette3 covers some of the same stuff that the commentary does; it’s thirteen minutes and a very concentrated look at making the movie. It also includes some shots from the storyboards.

The Brother From Another Planet is a very good movie, very rewatchable; unless you’re a Sayles junkie it features a cast of great actors who you probably haven’t seen before. Sayles could have made a great movie just putting those characters together in Odell’s bar and completely jettisoning the science fiction aspect—which is one of the hallmarks of great science fiction.

“Every once in a while it’s nice to just be able to cut to a clock.”

  1. Sayles also appears in Something Wild; it’s the first place I saw him.

  2. Sayles jokes in the commentary that Joe Morton is the only actor he ever let ad-lib in a movie.

  3. Billed as an “interview” on the menu, but we don’t get to hear the questions if there are any.

Recommendation: Purchase

DirectorJohn Sayles
WriterJohn Sayles
ActorsJoe Morton, Steve James, Tom Wright, John Sayles
Length1 hour, 50 minutes
Spoken languageEnglish
SubtitlesEnglish, English (CC), Spanish
Special FeaturesCommentary Track, Featurette, Trailer
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