Criterion // 1976 // 139 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 16th, 2008
You have to believe it to see it.
"You know Tommy, you're a freak. I don't mean that unkindly. I like freaks. That's why I like you."
Thomas Newton (David Bowie, The Prestige) is a visitor to Earth from another planet (probably). He has come to gather precious water for his fellow aliens, and but he's going to need quite a lot of money in order to get back. Newton has a plan. He quickly secures patents for some remarkable technology, and just as quickly becomes a very wealthy man. Newton is well on his way to achieving his mission. To aid him in his secretive quest, Newton employs the services of a patent lawyer (Buck Henry, The Graduate) and an ambitious college professor (Rip Torn, Men in Black). He also falls into a relationship with a needy young woman named Mary-Lou, and quickly begins to discover the pains and pleasures of life in the United States of America.
Have you seen Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth? If so, which version of the film did you see? When the film was set to be released theatrically in the United States during 1976, certain executives were quite baffled by the picture. Twenty minutes of particularly unusual material were snipped, making a challenging film even more of a challenge. It certainly confused plenty of audience members, in addition to a wide variety of critics. Many reviews ultimately wound up saying something along the lines of, "Not very good, but also quite excellent." Many knew that the film was worthy of praise, they just couldn't put their finger on why.
Fast forward to recent times, as the complete 139-minute film has been made available for home viewing. Criterion released it on laserdisc in 1992, Fox Lorber released it again in 1998, Anchor Bay put out a new version in 2003, and the whole adventure climaxed with a jam-packed 2-disc set from Criterion in 2005. Browsing through reviews of the film written over the course of the last decade, I was surprised to discover just how many conflicting opinions this film has generated. Some argue that the movie makes very little sense, and that it's nothing more than an empty, pretentious (if quite interesting) experiment. Others find endless depths of meaning and intrigue in the film, and offer thoughtful theories on the meaning of everything (one of the best pieces I've read was written by our own Judge Bill Gibron, who reviewed the 2005 Criterion release). Oddly enough, the theories of almost everyone seem to have some major variation. "Obviously, Thomas Newton is not an alien." "Of course, the entire thing is a study on capitalism." "It's more than clear that Roeg intended the whole thing to play as an epic farce." Etc., etc., etc.
At this point, I could pull the stopper out of my brain and just let all my mental doodlings about trains, American society, alienation, science, innovation, television, alcoholism, religion, evolution, and other cheerful topics spill out for a while. I'm going to refrain from doing so, because it doesn't really matter. My take on the film is one thing, and yours is bound to be another, because it's just that sort of film. Though there are bound to be exceptions, odds are that one of two things will happen to you if you see the film. A, you will be positively entranced by the movie and will be attempting to work through its hidden mysteries for days. B, you will find the whole thing just too bizarre and odd, and you will put it out of your mind. Whether you are in camp A or camp B, I suspect that you will feel an urge to return to the film at some point. Either you will want to test your theories and see how well they hold up, or you will be curious to see whether the movie is as odd and impenetrable as you thought it was the first time. So you might as well buy the film, right?
Things that most people can agree on and appreciate need to be noted. There are some very fine performances in the film, with the best coming from David Bowie as Newton. As Buck Henry accurately points out on the commentary track, it didn't matter that Bowie had no acting experience when he made the film. Bowie has a unique presence, and a unique presence is what the role requires. He is by turns sympathetic, distant, and occasionally a bit frightening. Bowie receives some excellent backing from Buck Henry, Rip Torn, and particularly Candy Clark, who all dive into their roles with gusto and complexity.
Anthony B. Richmond's cinematography is fantastic, capturing a wide array of striking images. The way Roeg chooses to present his material is quite intriguing. His "alien" sequences are dull and flat, with cheesy special effects and ho-hum sci-fi cliches. On the other hand, the earthbound sequences (particularly those focusing on sexuality in some way) are vibrant and inventive, sometimes reaching a startling level of mania. While we're on the subject of sex, a fair warning: if you're easily offended by nudity and graphic sexual content, you may want to pass on the film. Nudity was more or less a requirement during many films of the 1970s, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of the most extreme in this department. Combine the generous supply of full-frontal (male and female) images with the strange way in which the sex scenes are presented (particularly a controversial bit involving a pistol), and even mature adult viewers may be a little uncomfortable. As I said, fair warning.
The Man Who Fell to Earth also has a particularly eclectic soundtrack. From Louis Armstrong to old English hymns, from Gustav Holst to Joni Mitchell, from Steely Dan to Jim Reeves, Roeg keeps surprising us with new sounds throughout the entire film. Criterion's 2.0 stereo sound is just fine, but it's not quite as strong as the 5.1 mix available on the Anchor Bay release (an inferior release in almost every other way, mind you). This is one of the first Criterion releases to hit the Blu-ray format, and I was excited to see how The Man Who Fell to Earth would look in hi-def. The results are solid, if a notch less than thrilling. The movie looks good. Flesh tones are accurate, colors are well-balanced, the level of facial detail and background detail is decent, and blacks are pretty deep. Still, it's not quite a knockout. We're still dealing with some noteworthy grain in a lot of scenes, and we get that unmistakable "1970s look." Even so, the film has never looked this good.
The supplements from Criterion's 2-disc release are repeated here. An audio commentary with Roeg, Bowie, and Henry is included, and all have some compelling thoughts. We also get a video interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, a video interview with Rip Torn and Candy Clark, and audio interviews with production designer Brian Eatwell, costume designer May Routh, and author Walter Tevis. A few frills: some still galleries, a trailer, and a booklet with a thoughtful essay by Graham Fuller. One concern: Criterion's website claims that this release includes Walter Tevis's original novel (which was also included with the DVD release). The novel was not included with my review copy, so I'm not sure whether it will actually be included when you purchase the film.
Whether you love the film, hate the film, or just don't understand it, you have to admire this comprehensive release. If you all ready own the previous Criterion DVD, I'm not really comfortable with recommending an upgrade (particularly considering that you might miss out on Tevis's fine novel), but this hi-def release is probably the best option for those who don't own the film. One very positive note: those concerned about Criterion's considerable price tag need not worry. Thankfully, the folks at Criterion are applying their DVD price tag ($40 for most films) to all Blu-ray releases, which means that Criterion hi-def releases will not be considerably more expensive than those of any other company. Cool.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Video Interviews
* Audio Interviews