Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Silly Monsters, II: The Brother from Another Planet

Lately, I've been watching low-budget sci-fi movies. The other night I watched John Sayles's The Brother from Another Planet again, made for $400,000 in 1984. (That's 10 times more than Sayles had for his first feature, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, in 1979.)

I started this project because I'm interested in what the sci-fi lens shows about the cultures it comes from. Right? The way we imagine the future or other worlds says more about us than them.
I'm also finding these old, cheap-o movies much more fun to watch than modern movies with mega-budget CGI (computer generated images).

Sayles's Brother is spot-on social commentary on race and immigration in America. The Brother is a black humanoid who falls to Earth at Ellis Island and tries to assimilate in Harlem. Turns out he's an escaped slave, pursued by white-skinned Men in Black from his planet.

The plot remains topical almost twenty-five years later, as we Americans bash away about illegal aliens and appear to be "shocked, shocked" that racism should still rear its head in our presidential elections.

Brother is also one big, juicy testimony in favor of DIY (Do It Yourself).
In the director's commentary, Sayles describes the special effects, which were of the hide-a-lightbulb-in-your-hand kind. He says that not having much money can be frustrating, but it often forces you into better ideas.

For instance, to reflect that the Men in Black come from a planet with different gravity and thus move differently than Earthlings, the camera filmed the actors (Sayles and David Strathairn, left) walking and moving backwards. Played forward, their actions on the resulting film appear unidentifiably weird: what is it about these guys?

Conversely, Stardust (2007) cost $70 million to make. It's a sweet movie, and I bet the CGI folks had a ball, but I don't thrill to its seamless presentation.
It's the cracks that make things interesting. Like the Grand Canyon, the rifts are the places we get to see into character or creation.

Watching the DVD's "Making of Stardust" special feature, it looked like a bore to act in too. The actors are mostly working on empty sets surrounded by green screen (the backdrop that gets filled in with special effects). Notwithstanding, see the movie for Robert De Niro's turn as a crossdressing pirate. Priceless.

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