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THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry
Director:  Nicholas Roeg
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  139 Minutes
Release Date:  September 27, 2005

"They always seem to lead such interesting lives...people who travel..."

Film ***1/2

The Man Who Fell to Earth is some kind of bizarre masterpiece; frustrating and hypnotic, sometimes confusing yet always engaging.  It benefits from the touch of a masterful director with an eye for making the normal seem strange, and a pop-star turned actor in a role that seemed tailor made for him.

That director is Nicholas Roeg, who had made the equally strangely beautiful Walkabout five years earlier.  In it, he made the world seem both sumptuous and hostile…or if that’s the wrong word, at least harshly impartial…and he told the story of an outsider whose inability to communicate properly eventually led to his destruction.

He covers some similar ground in this movie, which is the kind of sci-fi that could only take place post-2001 and pre-Star Wars.  The Man Who Fell to Earth stars “The Man Who Sold the World”, David Bowie, who gives an excellent debut performance as Thomas Jerome Newton, the title role.

As the film opens, we witness a spectacular fall of some kind…the picture plays with enticing images yet never contemplates them more than for their physical beauty.  Newton has arrived from afar.  He comes from a world that is dying from lack of water.  Using patents for incredible advances in technology, his goal is to quickly establish a new corporation, make a fortune in order to build a ship for him to return home, and supposedly bring back a cache of water to his now barren world.

He obtains legal help from a patent lawyer, Oliver Farnsworth (Henry), and scientific help from a physics professor, Nathan Bryce (Torn), by throwing plenty of money their way and forbidding them to ask questions.  It doesn’t take long for Newton’s venture, World Enterprises, to become a major financial player with devices that change the way we live our lives (think: Microsoft). 

But Newton, who is fragile and constantly gulps water like a vampire to blood, becomes victimized by human nature and corruption.  A casual encounter with a hotel worker, Mary Lou (Clark), who seems to save his life after a near-fatal accident, eventually turns into a love affair.  Mary Lou seems clingy and desperate, while Newton at first remains reserved and detached.  But as the years pass (we don’t know exactly how much time the story takes), she switches him from water to alcohol while he begins to learn the pleasures of being young, handsome and rich on this planet.

He also learns what it means to become a cult figure.  Naïvely assuming he can remain private while building such an empire, he becomes something of an icon.  By the time he’s supposed to return home, he’s much different than when he first arrived, and throes are gathered to see him off.  But he doesn’t make it, partially because those he trusted have uncovered his secret.

This is a sad tale, and a strange one, about a seemingly incorruptible being becoming corrupted.  We see surreal flashbacks by Newton to the family he left behind on a drying up planet…his original goal is just to do his job and get back to them, but they become more and more elusive to him as he becomes trapped in the corporate gears of greed he helped create.  His relationship with Mary Lou is even more strange and sad…we see in a key scene of revelation that in normal form, Newton could never have the kind of physical relationship with a woman that humans could have.  His artificial guise allows him to…as Pauline Kael wrote, it’s purity become erotic.

This picture isn’t always easy to follow, but it’s always engaging.  Nicholas Roeg deliberately factures his timeline as he goes.  By the end, we’re not sure just how long Newton has been on earth…he seems to age internally instead of externally…but his companions have all grown much older.  They’ve physically changed much more than him, but ironically, it’s Newton that alters the most over the course of the story.

The acting in this film is splendid, with Bowie giving one of the best performances of his career in his first movie role.  He has the right look for Newton, but more so, the right mannerism, the right perplexity, and sometimes even the right helplessness.  He seems to really understand and vitalize the mysterious visitor.

The photography and camerawork is first rate…as mentioned, Roeg has an eye for making the ordinary seem disjointed.  The early sequence where simple objects are depicted in strange photographic context make us as disoriented as Newton is.  Roeg’s landscapes, as usual, show nature as both beautiful and eerie, making the imagery constantly enticing and hypnotic. 

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a most unusual and distinct piece of science fiction in the end.  It forgoes the genre’s usual intercourse with technology and razzle-dazzle to become a sober, contemplative look at the nature of man with an outsider’s eyes…and maybe finding more truth than we’re comfortable in dealing with.

Video ****

Simply stunning…I have to say that this anamorphic transfer from Criterion, approved by Nicholas Roeg, is a great service to fans.  Nicholas Roeg is an absolute master of screen composition, and he uses the Scope ratio to full effect in shot after shot.  Every frame is a thing of beauty; to trim it down for pan & scan would be almost like hacking limbs off of the Pieta. 

But above and beyond that, this is one of the best looking transfers I’ve ever seen for a 70s film, and a startling revelation when compared to previous faded out VHS versions.  Ever color, every tone, every shade is brought to vivid life by this offering.  Detail level is remarkable, in both close and far shots, with every object in every scene looking distinct…even similar colors in certain shots take on their own particular hue and never bleed or blend unduly.  Even the print itself is clean and free of aging artifacts.  An extraordinary effort!

Audio ***

Though a version of this film exists on disc with remastered 5.1 sound, Criterion opted for the purist route, and kept the audio in its original stereo format.  The sound is still quite good despite its natural limitations, with a fair amount of dynamic range, clean and clear dialogue, and some great soundtrack music to boot.

Features ****

This is a pretty loaded double disc offering from Criterion that should please fans of the film.  Disc One features a commentary by Nicholas Roeg, David Bowie and Buck Henry.  Roeg is a kind of low-key, thoughtful speaker, but with a good sense of analysis of his own work and a bit of a humorous side.  Part of the commentary track is him alone, part is him with Bowie...it's a real treat to listen to the rock legend reminisce.  Buck Henry speaks solo, and he delivers his thoughts with great affinity and a chuckle or two.

Disc Two has the remaining extras, and they include a new video interviews with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg as well as actors Candy Clark and Rip Torn.  There are a pair of audio-only interviews featuring costume designer May Routh and production designer Brian Eastwell on one and novelist Walter Tevis on the other.

Rounding out are galleries of costume sketches, photos, production and publicity skills, and trailers.  But Criterion wouldn't be Criterion without the inclusion of some excellent printed material, and with this set, you not only get a 28 page booklet of essays and information, you also get a copy of Walter Tevis' complete original novel, reprinted especially for this release.  Simply outstanding.

Summary:

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a sad, beautiful, strange tale that defies the usual building blocks of science fiction to become more thoughtful, more observant, and more about ourselves in our present state than any vision of optimism or pessimism for the future.  Criterion has scored big yet again...this is a terrific movie on a fantastic disc that should thrill its many loyal fans.

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