I never would have watched The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) had I not been sent the Blu-ray for review. Of the first four Blu-rays released by Criterion it is the one title I wouldn’t have actually shelled out money for even though I was intrigued after watching the trailer. However, first impressions aren’t always everything but after watching the film itself, listening to the accompanying audio commentary and watching the group of supplements included with this release I can still say it is a film I would never buy, but not necessarily because it is a bad film as much as it just isn’t my kind of film. Reading the accompanying essay written by critic Graham Fuller the recognition of director Nicolas Roeg as an experimentalist pretty much says it all. In my experience experimental films are going to be a hit or miss with audiences (most often miss in my case) and it is always on a case-by-case basis.
Of course, my experience with experimental filmmakers is extremely limited and would include more modern directors such as David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry. Fuller uses names such as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, all three of which I am entirely unfamiliar. This should instantly give you some idea of how I am evaluating this film and you should also consider I am typically less than 50/50 in favor of the majority of Lynch, Gilliam and Gondry flicks. If you consider Kubrick an experimental helmer then that number goes up, since I love Kubrick, but I don’t really think he is experimental, at least not in comparison to the other names I mention.
In terms of story and message this is the most intriguing part of The Man Who Fell to Earth. The film centers on an alien played by David Bowie who falls to Earth in search of a source of water to save his family on his desert home world which looks as if it may have been hit by some form of nuclear holocaust. He is subsequently tainted by humanity, falling into the arms of alcohol and an unhealthy desire for television. All of this is extremely interesting, but Roeg puts his own spin on how to tell the story and this is where it loses me. The box art and Criterion description is very flattering in terms of direction, performances and vision, but I can’t entirely agree.
While I do think Bowie’s performance as the alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, is very good I wasn’t particularly impressed with Candy Clark as Mary-Lou, the lecherous hotel maid who becomes a large corrupting factor in the downfall of Newton. I understand she isn’t meant to be the brightest bulb in the box, but her stupidity entered the realm of annoying, a line I believe most directors need to watch when it comes to their dumber characters in an attempt to only annoy the characters in the film and not those in the audience.
Alternatively, it was very interesting to see Rip Torn as a sexually charged chemistry professor named Nathan Bryce. This is an early role for Torn, despite being 21 years after his uncredited debut in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, and my how he has changed. However, the role isn’t exactly enticing as much as it is a necessity. The most interesting of the supporting roles belongs to Buck Henry as the patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth who Newton goes to early on with nine patents, which ultimately serve as his source of income and his ability to provide his human cover as the CEO of World Enterprises. This is how political and corporate corruption find their way into a story that pretty much boils down to how human nature can corrupt even the purest of hearts; in this case an alien who comes to Earth in order to save his family only to find himself money hungry, corrupt and an alcoholic. Like I said, it’s very intriguing, but as told it is just too weird to recommend to most folks.
As it is said in the liner notes, nearly 20 minutes of this film were deleted from the film’s theatrical debut in America in 1976. Many of those scenes include an abundance of sexual situations which would most likely gain an NC-17 rating from the MPAA nowadays as well as a scene where Mary-Lou is seen urinating in her underwear. For everything normal about this film there is an over abundance of abnormal. The only other Nicolas Roeg feature I have seen is his horror/thriller Don’t Look Now and it was far more tame in terms of its experimental nature, but even in that one I had instances of “what the hell is going on?” As far as The Man Who Fell to Earth is concerned, it is a far more straight-forward narrative, but instead of “what is going on?” I found myself wondering, “Why do that?” This is an abstract painting of a film and some people can appreciate that, in this case I was left cold.
The supplements included with this release are interesting, regardless of how much you like/dislike the film. I enjoyed the commentary, which includes Roeg, Bowie and Henry as it is brought over from Criterion’s 1992 Laserdisc release as this Blu-ray is a high-definition transfer of the 2005 Criterion DVD release, which was in itself an upgrade from the 1992 release. The commentary consists of two sessions, one with Bowie and Roeg and another with Henry. They are pieced together quite well even though it does seem mildly odd when we are focused on Henry for a long duration considering listening to Roeg and Bowie is far more interesting.
While the commentary will probably be the most attractive supplement for most, the 26 minute interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg I found to be the most interesting as he discusses his adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name and the reasons behind so many of the decisions made in the film such as “Why ping-pong?” An interesting answer to be sure. Tevis as well has his time on the disc, although it is an old audio interview just prior to the author’s death in 1984. Interesting enough, Tevis also wrote the novels “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money” which inspired the Paul Newman films of the same name. Rip Torn and Candy Clark get their own feature as a combined 25 minute interview feature from the 2005 DVD edition where they give their thoughts on the film and especially their thoughts on the characters and their thoughts on the censoring of the United States version.
Next is a production and costume design feature broken into three sections, the first is a 23 minute interview with production designer Brian Eatwell and a second 20 minute interview with costume designer May Routh. The third section features a gallery of character and costume sketches of which you have already seen if you watch the two interview features. There’s also a gallery of seven trailers and four additional photo galleries including a look at David James’s behind the scenes photos from the set, which include the artwork for the Blu-ray release, Nicolas Roeg’s continuity book which is akin to a production scrap book, producer Si Litvinoff’s behind-the-scenes amateur snaps and a Nicolas Roeg poster gallery featuring posters from Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Performance, Walkabout and Bad Timing.
As always, Criterion has put together a package worthy of their collection. The Blu-ray transfer is impressive to say the least and as the second Blu-ray title I have reviewed from Criterion they are off to a wonderful start. The audio track is great as well, but considering this was my first time watching the film I have very little to compare it to. That said, one thing I did particularly enjoy was the unique score from John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta. It roots the film in the ’70s but exceeds expectation.
Overall, I can’t recommend this to anyone in particular. It certainly is not a blind buy as much as I think you should completely realize what you are walking into with this one and since Criterion titles can be a bit pricey this is one for those that truly enjoy this kind of film. Give the trailer a watch right here and after my description of the film matched up with some images you should have a much clearer look at what kind of film you are in for.