Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."
- W.H. Auden, "Musée des Beaux Arts"
The Man Who Fell to Earth opens as a slightly disoriented figure stumbles into a sleepy New Mexico town. With seemingly nothing to his name but a passport, an engraved wedding ring, and the clothes on his back, Thomas Newton (David Bowie) -- as he politely introduces himself -- sells what looks to be the last of his worldly possessions in an antique store for just twenty dollars. When we next see Newton, he's drinking from a pond while fiddling with a rack of similar rings and a fist-sized roll of hundred dollar bills. Money is of paramount importance to Mr. Newton. This initial venture is just meant to collect enough to attract the attention of a respected patent attorney (Buck Henry) who Newton presents with a folder of handwritten figures and formulas -- the basis for nine basic patents that Farnsworth estimates to be worth north of three hundred million dollars within just a few short years. Newton grimaces at that number, noting through a mildly disappointed frown that it's not enough.
It's certainly an unconventional start to a science fiction film, stepping away from lingering glimpses of alien craft, foam rubber prosthetics, and titanic, Kirbyesque machinery. No, there's just a somewhat awkward and thoroughly British figure with a corporate business plan, a drive for amassing an inconceivably massive fortune, and a
Within a few years, Newton has the entire resources of his empire redirected into a new project, one that baffles Farnsworth for being so impractical. Still, it attracts the interest of Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a divorced scientist in a state of arrested development who's been given purpose for his life after years of mindlessly fooling around with nubile freshman girls.
Although Newton had always kept himself at arm's length from the day-to-day operations of the company, he's even further removed now; one of the wealthiest men on the planet is holed up in a low-rent apartment with a bubbly twentysomething cleaning lady (Candy Clark). Life on Earth has caused Newton to lose sight of a mission he's still reluctant to confide in anyone about, now compelled by his pursuit of more earthly pleasures, particularly the thrall of arrays of televisions and a newfound fascination with alcohol. Newton's pursuit of a massive empire has earned him some enemies deep within the United States government as well, viewing the one paradigm shift after another introduced by World Enterprises to threaten the stability of the nation's economy. As in Auden's poem,
The Man Who Fell to Earth is an unavoidably divisive film. In his audio commentary, director Nicolas Roeg seems somewhat startled that he was able to helm a movie like this in the first place; its producers and distributors were so distracted by the concept of having a marquee draw like David Bowie on-board that they paid little attention to the script itself. The film doesn't fit comfortably in the confines of any single genre. It doesn't carefully guide viewers along, leaping forward years and sometimes seemingly decades without intertitles or expository visual clues. Its runtime approaches a daunting two and a half hours without being propelled by any real action or even much of an antagonist to struggle against. If the liner notes tucked inside its case are any indication, seemingly everyone on the cast and crew has a different perspective of what The Man Who Fell to Earth is actually about.
That's part of what fascinates me so much about the film. The Man Who Fell to Earth is like an abstract painting: it's striking enough to be appreciated for its surface merits, but it leaves room for an enormous amount of interpretation. This isn't an inaccessible film, at least in my opinion, but it still challenges the audience, revealing a previously undiscovered layer with each viewing. There's a level of social satire about the consumptive nature of American society. A subplot about the government's heavy-handed intervention in finance and business -- confident in the belief that what it's doing is right but taking a destructive, murderous approach just the same -- seems, at least to a point, more relevant than ever in these days of multibillion dollar corporate bailouts. Newton exchanging his initial thirst for something else entirely...watching as a character from one world is immersed into another only to find himself irrevocably transformed in the process, harkening back to Roeg's Walkabout...the Christ-like metaphor about a being descending from the heavens with only the best of intentions that nonetheless is
There's so much I appreciate about the artistry of The Man Who Fell to Earth. The traditional stranger-in-a-strange-land story tends to place its emphasis on how uprooted characters directly respond to strange and unfamiliar situations, but this isn't at all the case in this film. The Man Who Fell to Earth is far more fascinated by how these sorts of scenarios can so profoundly transform a person over time. Roeg's talent for intercutting two separate sets of images and expressing a third, distinct message in the process -- most memorably portrayed in the interweaving of impassioned, carnal sex in Don't Look Now with the quiet banality of getting dressed for a night on the town -- is an integral part of this film as well. The Man Who Fell to Earth is even more intensely sexual than Don't Look Now, weaving a theme about the gulf between true intimacy and frenzied but rote lust that comes full circle in its final moments. The dry wit to its dialogue frequently sparkles as well. Two of my favorite exchanges:
In a film with a number of wonderful performances, the most inspired is the casting of David Bowie as Newton. Despite not having another feature film credit to his name at this point in his career, it's difficult to picture anyone better suited to the role of this androgynous creature from another world than the man behind Ziggy Stardust. Bowie may have been used to playing characters large enough to reach fans in the nosebleed seats in his arena shows, but he plays Newton with a remarkable amount of restraint. The flickers of hesitation upon first meeting Farnsworth, his wonderfully British politeness at every turn, the steeled confidence with which he announces his corporate plans as he strolls out the door -- they're fairly subtle gradations of a character Bowie makes wholly his own from the outset.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a tremendous film: abstract, evocative, haunting, outstandingly well acted and directed, and, it's worth noting, still extraordinarily entertaining. This is not a conventional title to turn to while marking a company's debut into a new home video format, but it's an inspired choice and gives me even greater hope to see what The Criterion Collection will have to offer over the coming years. Highly Recommended.
Admittedly, though, this isn't the traditional sort of dazzling home theater eye candy. Like quite a number of films from this era, the visual style tends to be somewhat soft, gritty, and muted, and the edges of the frame in its anamorphic photography infrequently look somewhat blurry and less distinct. Its colors deliberately don't leap off the screen but are certainly vibrant enough, especially the consistently ruddy tint to Newton's hair. The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn't boast that sort of three-dimensional, almost tactile appearance so frequently associated with the format, but neither that nor these other scattered comments should be considered flaws of any sort with this Blu-ray presentation. This is the way The Man Who Fell to Earth was photographed more than thirty years ago and is, by all indications, precisely how it ought to look. It's a considerable upgrade over previous DVD editions, especially for those who missed out on Criterion's 2005 DVD re-release. The Man Who Fell to Earth boasts a strong sense of clarity, definition, and detail, and I don't have any qualms or concerns about its presentation on Blu-ray in the slightest.
Shrugging off the six-channel remixes from Anchor Bay's DVD, The Man Who Fell to Earth features an uncompressed PCM stereo soundtrack. Its fidelity and limited dynamic range root the film in the mid-1970s -- viewers shouldn't expect crystalline highs or thunderous low-frequency assaults -- but I'm still pleased with the way the film sounds on Blu-ray. The eclectic score by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta is warm and reasonably full-bodied. The Man Who Fell to Earth's dialogue has somewhat of a dated quality to it but is consistently clear and discernable throughout, and the soundtrack is never marred by any pops, dropouts, or hiss lurking in the background.
The Man Who Fell to Earth includes a set of English subtitles captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing. I don't see a way to enable them through the menus, but this subtitle stream is accessible with the press of a button on the remote. Extras
The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn't carry over all of the printed extras from Criterion's 2005 DVD set -- Walter Tevis' 1963 novel and an essay by Jack Matthews have been excised -- but the other features from that two-disc collection have all made their way to this Blu-ray set. A large percentage of the stills featured here have been scanned at a high definition resolution, and the bulk of the disc's remaining extras are presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen.
Criterion has opted against using the format's trademark translucent blue cases for their Blu-ray titles. These digipacks are approximately the same size, though, just a fraction of an inch wider and taller than a traditional Blu-ray case. Other than its size, there's little to indicate at a glance once opened that these are Blu-ray titles, and that's an intriguing design approach. The lack of any large logos or blue banners does offer Criterion more real estate to devote to their wonderfully creative artwork. An extensive, insightful, and similarly wonderfully designed set of liner notes have also been included. One of The Man Who Fell to Earth's running themes is the seductive thrall of television, and the front and back covers of the notes have been photographed from a TV set, blown up to exaggerate the scanlines. The disc's menus take a similar approach.
As collectors likely already know, Criterion has decided to continue with their current numbering system rather than restarting as the company did when they issued their first DVD. The Man Who Fell to Earth is stamped as number 304. The Final Word
An impressively wide net has been cast for The Criterion Collection's initial wave of Blu-ray titles, and as a longtime admirer of Nicolas Roeg's, it's a thrill to see The Man Who Fell to Earth among their first high definition releases. Provocative, strange, haunting, lyrical, and outstandingly directed and performed, The Man Who Fell to Earth defies classification and demands to be experienced at least once.
Criterion has done a remarkable job bringing this unique and unusually compelling film to Blu-ray. Although the printed extras from their lavish two-disc DVD set are missed, The Man Who Fell to Earth looks and sounds wonderful on Blu-ray, and its extensive set of interviews and photographs make for an even more rewarding experience. Highly Recommended.