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DVD SAVANT

THE Man Who Fell To Earth


The Man Who Fell to Earth
Anchor Bay
1976 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 140 min. / Street Date February 11, 2003 / $29.98
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

A highly original movie made from the thinnest of science fiction premises, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a cinematic triumph of ideas and emotions. It ultimately becomes a frustrating and despairing criticism of humanity, but this long, complex and sensual story of a stranger in a strange land will have a big appeal for lovers of artsy puzzle pictures.

Synopsis:

A stranger, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), falls from the sky in New Mexico. He has a British passport, thousands in cash, and a pockeful of gold rings to barter; and soon he is in New York at the office of patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), presenting him with 9 separate, basic patents to promote. While Farnsworth quickly parlays Newton's futuristic knowledge into a corporate empire, the reclusive alien tycoon takes to the New Mexico back roads, gathering up a lover, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) on his way. He doesn't reveal his purpose, but Newton's really here on a mission of life and death for his home planet. Far across space, his wife and children are slowly dying, waiting for him to return with needed water.

Poor Thomas Jerome 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 isn't at all bad. In his first film role, cadaverous David Bowie is a natural for appearing alien. His amphi-sexual looks and soft British voice go far in persuading us that he is indeed from outer space. Although we see a number of fantastic things occur, most of them are from Newton's odd-perception POV, with the exception of the one time he reveals himself (unaccountably) in his earless, genital-challenged form. We have to take him at his word that he's from beyond the stars.  1

The Man Who Fell to Earth quickly demonstrates that its aims are not along convential sci-fi lines. Newton is less a real E.T., than a post-modern Baron Munchausen. There's almost no space gadgetry on view, except in one wishful-thinking daydream sequence. Apparently half a century passes, but clothing and vehicles stay exactly the same even as faces change. And the actual 'plot' makes little effort at credibility for Newton's space mission.

The liner notes point 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 encourage Earth scientists to invent a vehicle for him. Why doesn't he just hand over the blueprints for whatever device projected him across the stars in the first place?

Obviously, Paul Mayersberg's trippy screenplay is more concerned with accentuating more universal themes. 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 his judgment. By foolishly revealing his identity to the hearty but corruptable Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn, playing Judas again as he did in King of Kings), Newton gives up all hope for his mission.

Newton is eventually checkmated by human institutions that even Klaatu and Gort would have a hard time cracking. His human operative Oliver Farnsworth is a fairly reliable choice to run his businesses, but the corporate competition that muscles in on Newton's World Enterprises is a boardroom version of Murder, Incorporated. The paranoid world presented is the kind where cooly persistent buyers force resistant sellers to 'take the wider view', in the same way that big nations impose their will on smaller ones - legalistic talk, followed by cold steel.

The Man Who Fell to Earth's best touches are personal. The way Newton connects with the good-hearted Mary-Lou, Oliver Farnsworth's careful husbandry of the business, and his relationship with his male partner, all seem healthy. Newton's skewed perceptions allow him to occupy his mind while watching up to a dozen televisions at the same time, which gives poor Mary-Lou grief but allows editor Graeme Clifford more raw film footage from which to make bizarre montages. These are effective, even when they are less than inspired - Mary Lou and Nathan Bryce talk around the issue of betraying Newton, all intercut with identical material from the end of The Third Man.

If Roeg isn't sex-obsessed, he's certainly one of the more successful directors at using the 70s freedom of the screen to present sexual behavior. Much of the R-rated content of the show was cut from the first screen release of the film, and there's a lot of full-frontal, full dorsal, and full-on-everything footage. 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 permit now, none of it seems exploitative. Rip Torn's dalliances with a series of interchangeable college girls are so identical, it looks as if Torn were allowed to repeat 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 number one corporate villain, played by Bernie Casey, is given a sensual scene with a loving wife (Claudia Jennings) Roeg is one director who have his actors disrobe, without making everyone involved look foolish.

First-time viewers are bound to be thrown for a loop by the editing, which uses all of the time-slip fragmentation tricks learned in earlier Roeg collaborations, like Petulia and Don't Look Now. Combine Newton's strange set of perceptory senses, with his imaginings (?) of what's happening back on his home planet, with a time sense 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 falling apart, we're suddenly given an imagined (?) vision of success, as he prepares to board his completed spaceship for the return flight, taking the congratulations of a huge mob, which 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 myth in Mayersberg's list of on-screen references.

Viewers expecting sci-fi eye candy, as offered by the tinsel and plexiglass boredom of the same year's 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 with a prop alien train that looks as if it were cobbled together as a homecoming float. The aliens wear tight plastic suits with water piped through them in tiny tubes, which reminds one more of a bunch of aquarium accessories than an alien garb. Just as space travel is pictured with a couple of stock shots and a flash of light, the hardcore SciFi content here is merely representational. Made in 1976, before the Internet or even home computers, the only one of Newton's 9 patents that's pictured is his instant camera, and the final design even for that is less than inspiring. Instead of throwing inadequate resources at slick realism and failing, as in Zardoz, The Man Who Fell to Earth stays in virgin minimalist territory, hewing closer to Alphaville's poetic artificiality.  2

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


Anchor Bay's DVD of The Man Who Fell to Earth is a big success, light-years ahead of an older DVD edition that Savant viewed once and never wants to touch again. The enhanced transfer is excellent, the show the uncut 140 minute version, and the Dolby Digital & DTS audio is THX approved.

Watching the Alien is a 24 minute docu that rounds up the director, actress Candy Clark, and several producers and production people for a very efficient and absorbing account of the making of the film. Nicolas Roeg behaves as a director should in a perfect world - not the least bit sorry that practically every film he ever directed, never made a nickel. His pride for them exists totally outside of commercial considerations.

There are also the usual trailers and tv spots and still and art galleries. The talent bios for Roeg and Bowie are AB's standard excellent essays, this time written by the able Mark Wickum. The packaging cagily gives David Bowie the big-face treatment on the slipcover, while reserving an original art graphic on the disc holder beneath. An insert booklet is provided as well.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Man Who Fell to Earth rates:
Movie: Very Good - Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 25 minute docu, trailers, tv spots, artwork and stills, bios
Packaging: Double plastic and card case (2 discs)
Reviewed: February 25, 2003


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 insurance.
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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 Jean Luc Godard's Lemmy Caution Sci-Fi spy epic.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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