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DVD SAVANT

The Man Who Fell to Earth
Savant Blu-ray Review


The Man Who Fell to Earth
Blu-ray
Criterion 304
1976 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 139 min. / Street Date December 16, 2008 / 39.95
Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey
Cinematography Anthony B. Richmond
Production Designer Brian Eatwell
Film Editor Graeme Clifford
Original Music John Phillips, Stomu Yamashta
Written by Paul Mayersberg from the novel by Walter Tevis
Produced by Michael Deeley, Si Litvinoff, Barry Spikings
Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The year before Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a science fiction movie appeared that appealed to an entirely different kind of audience. Made from the thinnest of Sci-Fi premises, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the kind of mysterious cinematic collage we expect from director Nicolas Roeg. The sensual story of a stranger in a strange land carries a big appeal for lovers of artsy puzzle pictures.

Synopsis:

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) falls from the sky in New Mexico. He has a British passport, thousands in cash and a pocketful of gold rings to barter. He's soon in the New York office of Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), presenting the lawyer with nine separate basic patents to promote. Farnsworth quickly develops Newton's futuristic knowledge into a corporate empire. The reclusive alien takes to the New Mexico back roads, gathering up a lover, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) along the way. Newton doesn't reveal his purpose, a mission of life and death for his home planet. Far across space, the lonely voyager's wife and children are slowly dying, waiting for him to return with needed water.

Poor Thom Newton hasn't got an exterrestrial's chance in Area 51 -- no sooner does he walk into a shop with a gold ring, than the owner cheats him by offering only $20 for it.

As a thriller, The Man Who Fell to Earth can be frustrating, but it's also a fascinating mystery. In his first film role, cadaverous David Bowie is a natural alien. His amphi-sexual looks, feathered red hair and soft British voice go far in persuading us that he is indeed from outer space. Although a number of fantastic events occur, most are from Newton's weird POV -- his eyes can apparently see into the past and across the vastness of space. We don't have to take Newton at his word that he's from beyond the stars, because he eventually does reveal himself in his earless, genital-challenged form.  1

The Man Who Fell to Earth quickly demonstrates that its aims are not along conventional Sci-Fi lines. The only space gadgetry on view is seen in a wishful-thinking daydream sequence. And the actual 'plot' makes little effort to flesh out Newton's abortive space mission. Newton isn't a lost E.T. who wants to phone home; he's a post-modern Baron Munchausen. He never ages even as the rest of the cast grows old around him.

The liner notes of an earlier Anchor Bay disc pointed out that any civilization that can transport a man across the universe faster than the speed of light should be able to derive water from hydrogen one way or another. Newton comes well-equipped to start a gigantic corporation, but his alien buddies gave him no way to get back, other than by encouraging Earth scientists to invent a vehicle for him. Why doesn't he just hand over the blueprints for whatever device projected him to Earth in the first place?

Obviously, Paul Mayersberg's trippy screenplay is more concerned with themes of a more ethereal nature. Newton is literally alienated, but he also experiences a profound need for human companionship (if not love) and forms several very human bonds. Alas, the more human he becomes, the more faulty becomes his judgment. By foolishly revealing his identity to the hearty but corrupt Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn, again playing Judas as he did in King of Kings), Newton gives up all hope for his mission.

Newton eventually finds himself checkmated by institutions that even Klaatu and Gort would have a hard time cracking. Oliver Farnsworth is a reliable choice to run Newton's businesses, but the corporate competition that muscles in on Newton's World Enterprises is a boardroom version of Murder, Incorporated. In the (paranoid) real world, persistent buyers urge resistant sellers to "take the wider view", employing the same methodology used by big nations to impose their will on smaller ones - legalistic talk, followed by cold steel.

The Man Who Fell to Earth lets the conspiracies fester in the background while Newton, unaccustomed to a sensual existence, flounders in his awkward relationship with Mary-Lou. Newton's skewed perceptions require watching a dozen televisions at the same time to occupy his mind, a situation that gives poor Mary-Lou grief. All that video enables editor Graeme Clifford to weave bizarre montages, which are effective even when are less than inspired -- Mary-Lou and Nathan Bryce's discussion about betraying Newton is inter-cut with parallel material from the conclusion of The Third Man.

The elements of Mayersberg's script that resemble classic science fiction films are used as mostly irrelevant background material. As in This Island Earth, ultra-advanced aliens arrive and then unaccountably expect humans to "do the science" for them. Like the alien of Edgar Ulmer's The Man from Planet X, Newton is captured and destroyed by men more concerned with profit than study or communication. The Man Who Fell to Earth is best when it expresses interior states, when it visualizes Newton's cosmic despair. Thomas Jerome Newton behaves more like Howard Hughes than a monster from outer space. When the powers that be decide to study him like a lab animal, they don't give a damn that he's from outer space. His enormously profitable companies are upsetting the established monopolies that are the ultimate law.

Nicolas Roeg is one of the more successful directors at using the 70s freedom of the screen to present sexual behavior. Much of the show's R-rated content was cut from the film's first American release, and there's plenty of full-frontal, full dorsal, and full-on-everything nudity. Yet it's all in the service of the story and the emotions of the characters, and even when it goes far beyond what the MPAA (or most actors) would now permit, none of it seems exploitative. Rip Torn's dalliances with a series of interchangeable college girls play as if Torn repeated the same script pages with several actresses just for the extra fun to be had. Bowie and Clark's bedroom abandon goes beyond anything in a David Lynch film. Even the corporate villain played by Bernie Casey is given a sensual scene with a loving wife (Claudia Jennings). Director Roeg can ask his actors to disrobe without making everyone involved look foolish.

First-time viewers are bound to be thrown for a loop by the editing, which makes use of the time-slip fragmentation tricks of earlier Roeg collaborations Petulia and Don't Look Now. Combine Newton's strange sense perceptions with his imaginings (?) of what's happening back on his home planet, with a time logic that leaps about at will, and linear-minded people will quickly throw in the towel. At one point, Newton's limo suddenly leaps back 100 years for a brief and bewildering encounter with a pioneer family. It's a throwaway that makes us wonder less about the extent of Newton's alien powers, than the director's multi-leveled aims.

Near the end of the show, as all of Newton's plans are crumbling, we're suddenly given an imagined vision of success. Newton prepares to board his completed spaceship for the return flight, accepting the congratulations of a jubilant mob that includes the real Jim Lovell from Apollo 13! The scene comes almost out of nowhere, but instead of being gratuitous, it provides an emotional cliff from which Newton's hopes can plunge, Icarus-like: yet another of Mayersberg's long list of classical references.

Viewers expecting the tinsel & Plexiglas eye candy offered by the same year's dismal Logan's Run will be sorely disappointed in The Man Who Fell to Earth's minimalist designs and props. Newton's home planet is pictured as an ordinary desert with an alien tram vehicle that looks as if it were cobbled together as a homecoming float. The aliens wear tight plastic suits with water piped through tubes that look just like a bunch of aquarium accessories. Just as space travel is pictured with stock shots and flashes of light, the hardcore Sci-Fi content here is merely representational. The only one of Newton's nine patents pictured is his instant camera, which seems an improved Polaroid. Instead of throwing inadequate resources at slick realism, as in Zardoz, The Man Who Fell to Earth stays in virgin minimalist territory, hewing closer to the poetic artificiality of Godard's Alphaville.  2

Thomas Jerome Newton ends up much like Godard's Henri Dickson in Alphaville, a psychic burn-out whose mission was abandoned ages ago. But Mayerberg's Newton will never age, and lives a curse similar to the man who can never die in The Asphyx. He's doomed to linger in a dissipated stupor for all eternity. The man who betrayed him has no guilt, and Newton has no bitterness, even though it seems he will never again make contact with his (dead?) planet. Earth becomes a strange kind of purgatory, even for an ultra-chic rock star in a camel's hair coat and black fedora.


Criterion's Blu-ray of The Man Who Fell to Earth replaces a two-disc DVD set that came packed in a fancy box with a reprint of Walter Tevis' original novel. The extras are retained but the book is not. The beautifully mastered feature looks extraordinary, especially the razor-sharp New Mexico locations. The audio track (2.0 stereo) recreates the film's sophisticated mix, uncompressed. Buck Henry and David Bowie join Nicolas Roeg on a wide-ranging audio commentary. Henry actually offers more film theory-speak than does Roeg, although the director makes a solid effort at communicating his directorial aims and methods.

Interesting interview featurettes dominate. Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg has a fascinating flow of opinions and ideas on the way Walter Tevis' original novel was transformed, and how he replaced symbolic imagery with culture references ("Tommy Can You Hear Me?"). Mayersberg is precise in what he wants to convey, a quality that the edited interviews with Candy Clark and Rip Torn could use a bit more of. The actors are frank and open but are ill equipped to respond to questions about concepts and meanings. It's not their function to analyze the movie.

Well-edited but only for real diehards are audio interviews with the production designer and costume designer. On the other hand, an archival radio interview with author Walter Tevis (The Hustler) is an easy listen. He and Mayersberg draw apt parallels between the two stories. A selection of UK and US trailers and teasers round out the show; William Shatner narrates one of them. As with Criterion's other Blu-ray offerings, the printed text extras have been reduced, probably because the packaging chosen doesn't allow for a fat insert booklet. Graham Fuller's essay on the film has been retained, but another piece on Walter Tevis has been dropped

More than compensating is Criterion's Timeline menu choice, a graphic overlay that gives brief notes on the contents of commentary tracks, chapter by chapter. The feature will be a big help to researchers looking for specific discussions, especially on discs with multiple commentaries.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Man Who Fell to Earth Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good - Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Supplements: Audio commentary by Nicolas Roeg, David Bowie and Buck Henry; New video interviews with actors Candy Clark and Rip Torn; New video interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg; Audio interviews with costume designer May Routh and production designer Brian Eatwell; Multiple stills galleries; Gallery of posters from Roeg's films; Trailers and television spots.
Packaging: Folding card and plastic disc holder in card sleeve.
Reviewed: January 9, 2008


Footnotes:

1. A limey from space? Makes perfect sense, as Michael Rennie proved without a doubt in The Day the Earth Stood Still, made 25 years earlier. Newton is sort of the Son of Klaatu, in a manner of speaking. He should have brought Gort along as backup. Newton also has an unusual interest in trains, just as did Klaatu.
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2. A repeated two-shot of Bowie and Clark, alternately fading to black and then fading up to white, is a clear homage to a visual in Jean-Luc Godard's Lemmy Caution Sci-Fi spy epic.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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