In his feature film debut, David Bowie plays a man who, well, literally falls to Earth. It turns out he's from a distant desert planet and has come to help his people by bringing back some of the Earth's water supply for them. He assumes the identity of Thomas Newton and uses his alien technology to start a massive corporation to raise the millions of dollars he'll need to build a spaceship to one day return to his home planet and save his family.
As he spends more time on Earth, he hires his eccentric homosexual lawyer (played by Buck Henry, who surprisingly isn't going for laughs in this part) to run the corporation for him and becomes rather reclusive. He retreats to a small hotel in New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark).
The two begin a romance and they end up living together but their bliss is short lived as they both develop a drinking problem and Newton becomes more and more reclusive, spending his days shut in and glued to the multiple television sets with which he has furnished his house. When he finally gets his plan to return home into action, the government intervenes because they've find out he's from another planet, and things go horribly wrong.
After that intentionally vague plot description, let me state just how wonderfully composed every frame of this movie is. Nicholas Roeg's (Don't Look Now, Bad Timing) wonderful sense of style is displayed perfectly not only with the sweeping landscape shots but also the more intimate and subtle shots used throughout the film. The movie is both beautiful and disturbing in the way it looks and in what it's trying to say.
While the supporting cast members all turn in solid performances, the show here pretty much belongs to Bowie, who puts in quite a solid effort as Newton. With his already natural alien look, he's quite convincing and rather sympathetic without coming across as corny, which would not have been hard given the subject matter that the film deals with. Many musicians aren't able to properly make that transition from stage performer to film performer but Bowie makes it happen in this film, he's as good as anyone really could have been in the role thanks in no small part to his naturally odd screen presence but also through some seriously good acting. With his stage show having always been on the theatrical side it's not a shock that he was able to make the transition to the big screen but the fact that he does it so well and so seamlessly is a pleasant surprise indeed.
Bowie's androgyny works in the films favor as well, particularly in the restored 'Hello Mary Lou' scene in which Bowie and Clark are entwined in the nude. If it weren't for the presence of Bowie's 'dangly man bits' it would be difficult to tell them apart and in the shots where he's not pulling a full frontal it is indeed a bit hard to tell who is who. In fact, in one scene, Clark doubled for Bowie while he was off set ill, and all she had to do to pull it off convincingly was to pull the white hat that the character was supposed to be wearing over her face.
Roeg's wonderful direction and a rock solid performance from Bowie make The Man Who Fell To Earth a movie that is best experienced rather than simply viewed, as it is not without it's faults. There are a few plot holes that don't quite get resolved and characters that could have been better developed, but if you're willing to suspend your disbelief for two-and-a-half-hours, it's a wonderfully made and very bleak film that is a little bit disconcerting with its portrayal of mankind and human nature. Parts of the film are quite poetic, others quite sad but even during some of the slower parts Roeg's film is strong enough to keep your attention held firmly in place.
The look of the film is rather unique as well. The 2.35.1 widescreen canvas is absolutely the right format for the film, and Roeg makes full use of the format pulling in some really nice pans and some interesting close ups thanks for talented cinematography from Anthony B. Richmond (who would work with Roeg again three years later on Bad Timing). The color scheme is also very interesting – it's quite seventies with its regular use of strange blues and greens but it doesn't look dated at all, merely alien – and somehow that's appropriate.
For the record, this is the complete version of the film – just like the Anchor Bay release. There have been home video versions released in the past that were slightly trimmed and you don't have to worry about that with this two disc set as it is fully uncut.
Criterion presents The Man Who Fell To Earth in a 'new, restored high-definition digital 2.35.1 anamoprhic widescreen transfer, supervised and approved by director Nicolas Roeg.' In short, this transfer is pretty darned impressive. There are a few spots in the movie where the colors look a little muted but the movie has always looked this way and it's almost certainly a stylistic choice on the part of the cinematographer and not a fault of the authoring or transfer of the film itself. There's an insane amount of both foreground and background detail present throughout the image, and there are no problems with mpeg compression. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and black levels stay strong and deep. Color reproduction is, overall, very nice and aside from a perfectly understandable amount of fine film grain, there's really not much worth complaining about here. The director approved transfer on this DVD is a thing of beauty. There's no color bleeding at all and line shimmering and edge enhancement are never problematic during playback.
On this release, the film is presented in its original Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix (the original audio format that the film was made utilizing) and with optional English subtitles. For an older stereo mix, this is a very crisp and clean effort. The musical score sounds very nice and while there could have been a bit more in the lower end there's enough there to keep things sounding alive. Dialogue is crisp and perfectly clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Levels are balanced properly and nothing really drowns anything else out and you can always hear what the performers are saying over top of the score and the effects.
Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and DTS-ES 6.1 Surround Sound mixes that were found on the Anchor Bay two disc release of the film have not been carried over for this Criterion Collection release. However, purists should be pretty pleased with the quality of this stereo track and it suits the movie nicely.
Carried over from their old laserdisc release is Criterion's exclusive composite audio commentary by Roeg and actors David Bowie and Buck Henry. The one major complaint that I had about the previous Anchor Bay release was that this track was not included and thankfully that has been remedied with this release. The track is quite an interesting listen with Roeg having a bit more to say about things than the two actors – though there's still plenty of information given from all three parties. Bowie fans should enjoy hearing the musicians take on this, one of his earliest acting roles and one of his finest acting roles to date. Roeg's comments are quite insightful and it's interesting to hear him evaluate his own film as he watches it. He's got a good sense of balancing the technical with the trivial and his sense of humor is a nice addition to this track. During part of the commentary Roeg is joined by Bowie and they have a nice camaraderie together. Buck Henry was recorded solo but he's also quite interesting having obviously enjoyed himself a fair bit while making this film judging by how he talks about the cast and crew that he worked with during production. This commentary track is the only supplement on the first disc in the set.
On the second disc, things start off nicely with Performance, which is a lengthy compilation of brand new video interviews with actors Candy Clark and Rip Torn. It's interesting to get Clark's input on the film as she wasn't on the commentary track, neither was Rip Torn. They go into a fair bit of detail about what it was like working with Roeg and with the rather enigmatic Bowie and there are definitely some very interesting memories shared in this segment.
Next up we're treated to another brand new video interview, this time with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg. He gives us his input on working Roeg and some of the difficulties that he had in adapting Walter Tevis' original novel for the big screen. There are also two audio interviews tucked away on this disc, one with costume designer May Routh and with production designer Brian. Both of these are quite interesting as they cover aspects of the production that aren't really tackled in either the commentary or in the video interviews, and as such, they help to deliver an exceptionally well rounded look at the making of the movie.
Rounding out the extra features are still galleries for May Routh's costume sketches, a wealth of behind the scenes photographs, production stills and publicity stills. The production and publicity still galleries are given an introduction by the set photographer David James. There's also a nice gallery of poster art from all of Nicholas Roeg's films, as well as a pair of trailers and a pair of television spots.
That's not all though. Aside from the content on the two discs in the set, Criterion has also supplied an 'exclusive reprint of Walter Tevis' original novel, courtesy of Vintage Books.' While the source novel is on the shorter side, it's a great read and it's interesting to compare it to the film version in terms of what was changed and what wasn't. There's also a lengthy booklet featuring a new essay on the film by critic Graham Fuller and an appreciation of Tevis by novelist Jack Matthews, both of which are quite in depth and definitely worth reading.
NOTE:The twenty-four minute Watching The Alien documentary that was included on Anchor Bay's two disc special edition set of The Man Who Fell To Earth which was released in February of 2003 is not included in this set.
The Criterion Collection gives The Man Who Fell To Earth it's finest home video release to date. While the lack of the surround mixes from the Anchor Bay release is regrettable you can't really fault them for presenting the film in its original sound mix and the quality of the video transfer and of the supplements on this release is top notch indeed and the inclusion of the novel that the film was based on is just the icing on an already very tasty digital cake. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.