|Man Who Fell to Earth, The (Special Edition)|
|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 11 February 2003|
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is director Nicolas Roeg’s take on the science-fiction novel of the same name by author Walter Tevis, who also wrote “The Hustler,” upon which the famed Paul Newman film was based. David Bowie made his screen acting debut with this film as the title character Thomas Jerome Newton, who arrives on Earth from his now barren planet, a shock of orange hair and a peculiar thirst for water marking him as different. Newton travels from rural New Mexico to the big city, where he swiftly employs Farnsworth (Buck Henry), a talented and odd lawyer, to establish patents on nine inventions that Farnsworth says will net Newton at least $300 million within a short time. Soon Newton has built the giant World Enterprises, an international conglomerate that makes everything from cameras to music players.
Once he’s established himself, Newton leaves the company’s day to day tasks to Farnsworth and retreats to a hotel in New Mexico. Once there, he faints into the troubled arms of Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), who cares for and swiftly falls for the seemingly fragile yet utterly captivating Newton. Elsewhere, the womanizing professor Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn) becomes fascinated with World Enterprises and soon quits his teaching and philandering to work for Newton. What results is an examination into Newton’s isolation and loneliness, Mary-Lou’s dependencies and Bryce’s fascination with the unknown. Eventually Newton reveals his true self to Mary-Lou, who reacts as one would imagine if they suddenly found out they had been having sex with an alien. Bryce figures it out for himself and, instead of continuing to help Newton in his quest to aid his drought-plagued home planet, sells him out to the government, who proceed to place Newton in captivity and perform the usual experiments. Newton is trapped not only on Earth, but in this human body and within the walls of a makeshift prison that his friends and enemies both helped to create.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is a science-fiction story in the vein of Bradbury, where the idea of technology and extraterrestrial life is examined on a thoughtful level, instead of at a mechanical one. Together with Roeg’s highly stylized and sometimes exquisitely bizarre filmmaking, the film is thoughtful, strange, richly imagined, sensual and sometimes headache-inducing. Bowie is perfect as the androgynous, spindly, alien Newton and Candy Clark is magnificent as the mildly alcoholic, lovesick Mary-Lou. Torn and Henry, as well as actors like Bernie Casey, fulfill their roles with quiet verve, executing Roeg’s vision in the way that actors do when they are comfortable with their director.
No one should have any illusions that this is an exciting science-fiction film. It is a mysterious, illusory, often confusing and highly charged film in many ways. Like many of Roeg’s films, the pacing and chronology often vary, forcing the viewer to pay strict attention, especially since so much of the film is a mystery. Ultimately, the film is an examination of what it means to be alien, alone among those who both admire and fear you, and a prescient look at the dangerous intersection of private commerce and government.
Oh, if only every DVD was as intensely rich and detailed as the Criterion Collection. The transfer is incredibly sharp, colorful and rich in contrast, especially for a 30-year-old film. The transfer was overseen by Roeg himself, used the original negative of the uncut film, and was done in high-definition with the highest compression rate possible. This results not only in a beautifully crisp image, but allows the transfer team to better use their technology to clean and/or erase any dust or scratch blemishes. Not even at reel changes are their any specks of dust. In truth, the only area of anything remotely tarnished is the found footage of the Saturn rockets that are used at various points, and this footage is only sub-par because of the graininess of the film stock. Thankfully, Roeg and his team did not try to make the stereo mix into a 5.1-channel mix. Instead, they digitally restored and remastered the original 2.0-channel stereo track. To me, this is a better approach, since it changes the fundamental aspect of the sound design if you go from two channels to six. Roeg understands this fact and decided not to change the design of the film in any way. Instead, what we have in this DVD is the film as it was initially seen by British audiences 30 years ago. Granted, the transfer is an integral part of the DVD, but it only comprises one disc in this two-disc set.
Added to the first disc is incredible audio commentary by director Roeg and actors David Bowie and Buck Henry. Each man is a longtime member of the performing arts community and is therefore able to comment gracefully and knowledgeably about many things. The commentary is refreshing, concise and deep. All of the filmmakers clearly find the film to still be thought-provoking, not only in and of itself, but also their experience making it. While the commentary is not tremendously recent, it was recorded in the fall of 1992, allowing each commentator to have had ample time to reflect on the film, while not being so far removed from the production to forget important details.
The second disc is replete with truly in-depth bonus features, featuring many interviews, a treasure trove of both U.S. and international trailers and a huge gallery of still pictures and posters that also features some audio commentary. The audio interview with original novel author Walter Tevis is taken from a 20-year old NPR broadcast and provides some curious insights into the author, his sensibilities and his personal take on science-fiction. The other interviews were all recorded in 2005 exclusively for this Criterion edition. Each interview is professional and is accompanied by still photographs and live-action clips of the film. These interviews are gems of the sort that the Criterion Collection always seems able to provide. Rip Torn and Candy Clark are especially open about their experiences working on the film and how they view the film today. The Routh and Eatwell interviews are both concise and well thought-out, but the real gem is the interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, who acts as though he just wrote the screenplay last year, not 30 years before. Mayersberg provides key insights to how and why he and Roeg decided to show certain things and it actually helps to explain the more demanding portions of the film. All of these materials help to make our understanding of the film more complete; they are not there simply to entertain.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is a demanding, thought-provoking film that holds up in many ways but is sure to confuse many of today’s viewers who are unused to Roeg’s style and who do not have the patience to sit, watch and think. The Criterion Collection edition provides a great amount of serious, in-depth extras that not only help to understand the making of the film, but the film itself.