Confusing science fiction flop or sensational piece of speculative cinema? Judge Bill Gibron argues for the latter with his look at the remarkable Nicholas Roeg film, now given a full-blown Criterion Collection polish.
Our reviews of The Man Who Fell To Earth (published March 22nd, 2004) and The Man Who Fell To Earth: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray) (published December 16th, 2008) are also available.
There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.
Corruption is a cancer, spreading like those dastardly diseased cells into every aspect of existence. Sometimes, the fraud is readily apparent—people lying outright, politicians promising results they can never produce—while at other moments, the deception is impossible to see. Like a virus, corruption crawls inside you and starts slowly eroding away at your makeup. Values suddenly rot and fall away. Morals and principles become part of the illogical grace of dishonesty and fuse into an even larger blight of deceit. Eventually, we are changed from the interior outward, no longer the person we once thought we were, an alien in our own sleazed skin.
There are theories and hypotheses as to what exactly is the root of all this evil. Some point to money, and the motivation to make it and keep it. Others look to lifestyle, the choices we make in friends, lovers, partnerships, and cabals. A few will point to ethereal demons like drink, drugs, and debauchery as the source for all human soullessness, while a devoted number point to Heaven and Hell as the guide, and the guardian, of all that is heinous (your choice of which). The sad truth is, however, that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to corruption. We hear it whispering in the subconscious section of our psyche, wooing us like a paramour, making its own set of sickening, seedy pledges that will never materialize—at least, not without a major price. And we, as usual, acquiesce.
Imagine what a being from another planet would do under such antagonist auspices. To them, everything about Earth and humans is inherently strange, and without experience to buffer the inflow of influence, the possibilities of internal pollution are endless. This is the premise of Nicholas Roeg's amazingly dense dissection of disaffection and denigration, The Man Who Fell to Earth. In this classic from the '70s, Roeg redefined the concept of alienation, taking it both literally and figuratively, in the lead character of Thomas Jerome Newton, and created a movie that paints the United States as the most otherworldly arena in the entire universe.
Facts of the Case
When Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) steps into the New York apartment of patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry, The Graduate), it will be a meeting of life-changing proportions. Newton has the plans for several scientifically advanced electronic devices, and Farnsworth immediately recognizes their value. Striking a deal, Newton quickly becomes an incredibly wealthy man. With Farnsworth running the business, now known as World Enterprises, the eccentric millionaire can pursue other interests. While scouting locations in New Mexico for his next project, Newton falls under the influence of ditzy housekeeper Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, American Graffiti), and soon the two are a couple.
Meanwhile, the growing influence of World Enterprises has piqued the attention of Professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn, Men in Black). Abandoning his position at the local university (where he's unwanted anyway), Bryce goes to work for Newton on some jet propulsion/rocket fuel concept. As his life of exceptional privilege starts to buckle and burst, the truth about Newton begins to emerge. He is not some entrepreneur from England. He is an alien from a far-off planet, using the Earth and its commerce system to save his dying, drought-plagued planet. Only problem is, he is ineffectual and naive as a new member of the corruptible capitalist system. Eventually, the government gets involved, threatening Newton and his company through a "fixer" (Bernie Casey, Brian's Song). Our extraterrestrial visitor soon learns that there may be no journey home. For him, his lasting legacy may be as The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Falling almost always connotates failure. A suicide leaps from a building when life seems hopeless, the runner stumbles before the finish line. Wages decrease and the standard of living drops. The spiritual fall from grace, the wicked fall into sin. Whether it's out of the sky or into the arms of a companion, from a place of prominence or a sanctuary of last resort, we look at the downward motion as a lessening, declining, or diminishing. Remove the doom and gloom, however, and you could argue that it also means coming to one's senses, or getting one's feet back on the ground.
We do also conclude that people fall in love, that luck seems to drop in the lap of undeserving others, and that the autumn or "fall" of the seasons represents one of the most peaceful and pastoral times on the entire calendar. With falling comes clarity, the connections and associations that tend to draw up our future life plan. Without falling, after all, how could anyone pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again? Without failure, success is never as sweet.
For Thomas Jerome Newton, there has only been one true fall in his life, a literal leap from the gravity of his home planet into the physical attraction of his unknown destination, the third planet from the sun. For him, this odd little satellite traveling around an evocative solar star represents promise and potential. It offers hope and help. Indeed, for Mr. Newton, this brave new world is just waiting for what he has to offer. He carries with him the technology to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. From the moment he lands, to the time he eventually leaves, it will be one big climb from oddity to entrepreneur, from an unknown man with a seemingly limitless skill for invention to the wealthiest man alive.
The monolith to his might will grow large and towering, and those he takes with him will see their own meager dreams realized a million times over. But just as the maxim mentions, the bigger they are, the harder the fall should be. The rise and…reduction of Thomas James Newton is the story of corruption and capitalism in cahoots with commerce to make mice out of men. By the end of his journey—both physical and metaphysical—our tycoon will become the title character. He truly is the man who fell to Earth.
In only his third film as a director (he co-directed Performance before helming Walkabout and Don't Look Back solo), Nicolas Roeg announced himself as a heir worthy of Kubrick's creative genius, especially in the realm of speculative cinema. Like his ex-patriot peer, Roeg's 1976 opus The Man Who Fell to Earth is serious science fiction. Far more focused than the danger death ray daring-do on the b-movies and drive in drivel that came before, it is not an attempt to create a wonderful fantasy landscape or deliver us into a future world where our common concepts are channeled and challenged.
No, for Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a classic concept, the stranger in a strange land saga in which our own world is the baffling locale, and a sensitive, sad extraterrestrial is the visitor vying to survive. But the twist for the talented duo was not to make our planet the most welcoming of water worlds. No, the Earth of this movie is a place polluted (in environment and ethics) and scheming (in its emotions and ethos). As a result, Thomas Newton is destined to be damned, and the entire map of the United States will be Dante's inferno, with each stop along the way representing another corrupting circle of Hell.
If it is anything, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the answer to the mysterious sounding sentiment "be careful what you wish for." Every single character in this fascinating, flummoxing masterpiece argues for a kind a personal fulfillment that the space race djinn Thomas Newton can provide. For lonely hotel housekeeper Mary-Lou, Thomas is escape. He is the way out of the one-horse existence she's lost inside. The small New Mexican motel she floats inside, like a moth in a killing jar, is slowly destroying her will. With one single act of kindness, Newton becomes her savior, the man who will sweep her off her feet, realize her needs, and offer up an alternative to a life in spousal servitude.
Equally, Professor Nathan Bryce is an educator hopelessly addicted to the short skirts that audit his seminars. He is desperate for some manner of prominence, either within his department…or in the sack. When he stumbles across World Enterprises, and its enigmatic CEO Thomas Newton, he feels a strange sensation of simpatico. Both are men of knowledge, thinking outside the box in preparation for advances in all manner of sciences. By joining up with Newton's newest enterprise—a space program—he can rewrite his own personal history, and remove his name from the half-hearted failure page in the cosmic "could have been" catalog.
For Oliver Farnsworth, the stakes are more personal. As a man of means living an alternative lifestyle in New York City, Farnsworth is forced into a position of deception every single day of this life. The power that might come from partnering with Newton could mean an end to social stigmatization. Money changes everything, so they say, and with immense affluence comes even more authority. Newton's new ideas may revolutionize the electronics industry, but for Farnsworth and his life partner, the changes will be far more meaningful and safe.
Then there is Newton himself. His motives are pure at first, honest in their desire to aid his ailing planet and cognizant of the fact that it will take time to realize his goals. He knows his ideas are valuable, and that said worth is near priceless. With capital will come the command to do what he can to make a difference to the dying world he left. But what Newton doesn't know is that all the people around him—the lover, the educated friend, the business partner—will drain him of his wholesomeness, and in its place will be planted seeds—sour and bitter kernels of lies and deceit, control, and, ultimately, corruption. They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If that is the case, then absolute corruption is the most powerful poison in the universe.
At its core, Roeg's irregular sci-fi film is an epic tragedy, the meteoric ascent and slow, painful decline of the last honest man. As an alien from another world, Thomas Newton cannot lie, cannot hate, cannot die. He becomes the perfect pawn then, a nice little slate of blankness that everyone can project upon and protect as their own. As a character study, The Man Who Fell to Earth is crafty and cunning. It takes an entity of purity and puts him through the wringer. What we get at the other end is a drunk, disillusioned rock star (in fact and fiction) who drinks far too much and seems sunk in a permanent mire of melancholy. Call him the Hamlet of the heavens, or the MacBeth of Ursa Minor, but in Thomas Newton, Roeg has is mirror for the shittiest sentiments of the '70s. Watching this transformation from starman to stain is like a horrid history lesson in post '60s social squalor.
The most brilliant move by the director was the casting of artistic chameleon and rock-and-roll space oddity David Bowie. With his permanently paralyzed eye pupil, androgynous demi-god looks and ability to appear both approachable and foreign at the same time, bringing ole Ziggy Stardust into this mix was a masterstroke. Today, Davy is a good old boy, a genial gent with a likeable catalog of hits and hipness. But back in the '70s, he was the sensationalized symbol of youth culture run amuck and the cursed corrupting influence of the glam rock scene. With his professed bisexual tendencies, outrageous stage (and personal) personas, and a dodged caginess with the press, Bowie always played the part of alien on Earth in real life. Transposing this iconography to celluloid was a natural extension of his—and Roeg's—performance artist mentality.
Imagine placing Marilyn Manson in The Day the Earth Stood Still, or offering the roles of Jedi Knights to the guys in Slipknot. This was the effect of casting Bowie 30 years ago, and none of the power in that prescient decision is lost today. Bowie is magnificent, mannered, and method in both his approach to appearing normal and the truth of his extraterrestrial essence. Making this feature film debut that much more credible, and incredible, is the trio of talent surrounding him. Roeg originally had James Mason in mind for Farnsworth, but Buck Henry is a far better choice. He gives the minor man who longs for financial freedom a vulnerability and a likeability that makes his appearances on screen that much more memorable. Rip Torn, in a role that requires him to be both friend and foe, is very much a man of his senses. His sexual escapades—realized with randy resolve by Roeg's imaginative staging—are exercises in excess and experience. Bryce is locked in a world of the mind, so when he gets a chance to work his body, the results usually are fiery and fierce.
But the truly amazing turn in this film comes from Candy Clark. A great many critics find hers to be a whiny, wounded performance that seems phoned in from some planet…just not the one that Bowie's character is on or from. Sadly, Clark would never again capture the incredible range she shows here. She makes Mary-Lou a likeable leech, a woman with motives so obvious and outdated (who wanted to be a simple "wife" during the mid-'70s feminist war zone that was the social order?) that you can't help but feel sorry for her. She is such a parasite, a girl grabbing onto the first and seemingly only chance she will ever get, that she's willing to accept just about anything—even if it does literally scare the piss out of her.
In Roeg's hands, this seemingly simple story goes wildly askew and surreal. He and Mayersberg had great respect for the source material (a novel by The Hustler author Walter Tevis) but they also realized that their movie had to rely on textures and imagery, rather than effects and bombast, to make its point. Both wanted the planetary aspects to be a complete reflection of its current cultural climate, with nods to politics, cinema, and popular songs. Sprinkled throughout the amazing mise-en-scene in this movie are references to the real world of the time: Watergate, war, music, liberation, lying, classicism, and chaos.
One of the most amazing moments comes toward the end of the film, when government "fixer" Bernie Casey, a huge, athletic black man, takes a nude swim with his naked blond Caucasian wife. As he rises from the water, glistening and muscled, the couple caresses in a slow-motion embrace meant to make the blood boil in any bigot buying a ticket. Casey's casual glance toward the camera (and later comments about the children) creates a kind of middle finger to anyone still debating such "should be settled" issues as race and place.
Roeg is crafted from the Ken Russell school of visual excess. This cinematic ideal can best be described as "why hint at something when you can show it over and over again, from different angles, lens lengths and editing schemes." The Man Who Fell to Earth is often criticized as being incoherent, a collection of flashbacks and tangential issues that don't add up to a lucid narrative whole. Frankly, such a feeling is foolish. Looking at the film with linear logic, Newton lands on Earth, earns his money, becomes the victim of a government conspiracy, and finds himself locked away as a morose military experiment. All suggestion and confusion actually stems from the movie's desire to hide the motives of its characters, and to mirror Newton's experiences with the foreign facets of life on this planet.
Roeg is also smitten with the abject physicality of sex. His love scenes are not somber explorations of flesh. Instead, they are awkward and wild, abrupt, and incomplete. The carnal dynamic between people is as important as the cerebral for Roeg, and he makes sure his camera captures everything. But beyond the light show and the lewdness, all amazing performances and identifiable allusions aside, Roeg finds the inner truth in The Man Who Fell to Earth. For him, this film represents the polar opposite of traditional future shock. As a matter of fact, this is not speculative fiction, but definite. Looking over the past decade, we see lots of Thomas Newton's, supposedly minor men driven to heights of corruption and deceit by the lure of wealth and the wickedness of money. With corporate names like Enron and Tyco, World Enterprises predicted the kind of dollar-driven dictatorship that would cost this country billions.
But The Man Who Fell to Earth also argues that the State, more than any other entity, will become the source of ultimate deception. From the knowledge of who really shot JFK, to the question of whether men really did land on the moon, government was seen—especially in the '70s—as a bastion of badness so large that it threatened to blot out the original sun of democracy forged by the forefathers. It is interesting to note that Newton's ultimate downfall does not come at the hands of his friends, or his female companion, but at his own blindness to the government's need for power. Sovereignty is saved and maintained by such authority and influence. World Enterprises and Newton can't control the marketplace; only the government can. He's an alien, after all, so such sentiments are not strong in Newton. Once the hammer falls, he fails to see the possibilities, and it ends up being decades before he does.
With its amazing approach to visualization (Roeg's kitchen sink style is mesmerizing to behold) and absolute attention to emotional as well as physical detail (Newton "sees" his suffering family back on his home planet in scenes of heartbreaking beauty), The Man Who Fell to Earth becomes the companion piece to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story of the starchild, grown-up and given a single chance to save the world. Unfortunately, our interstellar Messiah is unable to handle the personal aspects of the overwhelming job, and his genuineness and candor cause him to flail, fail, and fall. Interestingly enough, the end result is the same as the situation from whence he started.
Thomas Newton arrived desperate, hopeful, and focused. Many years later, he is dulled, misplaced, and directionless. Both are states of absolute vulnerability. Both are places of inherent pain. Within each, there is a chance for redemption. Within each, there is a possibility of death. But Thomas Newton is an alien. It will be a long time until he finally passes on. For him, this means that another prospect awaits. He's already fallen once, and crawled into a bottle to mask the pain and forget his disgrace (the escape of liquor is a major device in the film). With the end nowhere in current sight, what's to say he won't tumble again. This is the great calamity of The Man Who Fell to Earth. For humans, the hurt ends at death. For Thomas, it may continue on indefinitely…perhaps, forever.
Criterion has an honorable history with The Man Who Fell to Earth. As part of their previous stellar laserdisc collection, they released a complete, uncut version of the film with commentary by Roeg, Bowie and Henry, a selection of deleted scenes, and galleries of costume and set designs. After Fox Lorber took over the title for DVD in 2002, a bare-bones bastardization was released. Even Anchor Bay had a 2003 shot at releasing the film (read Judge Eric Profancik's review HERE). Now Criterion is back, and the return was very well worth the wait. Offered in a two-disc set loaded with added features, including a copy of the novel on which the film is based, this is one of the best packages the preservationist experts have ever put together.
Visually, the movie looks amazing—better than the Fox Lorber/Anchor Bay offering, better than the previous laserdisc. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is alive with color, dense with detail, and awash in stunning visual vibrancy. Roeg is often accused of sensory overload, and this is surely the case here. His vistas are wide open and opulent, his cityscapes controlled and creative. Compositionally, he makes interesting choices in blocking and framing, and the '60s/'70s use of optical tricks (double exposures, multiple images, strange lens effects) remain expertly realized. There are one or two minor sequences of grain that keep the transfer from being flawless, but overall, this is one gorgeous and generous image. On the sound side, the old-fashioned Dolby Digtial Stereo 2.0 is clean, crisp, and clear. Dialogue is easily discernible and the varied musical scoring is sonically secure. While a 5.1 remix would have made the most of Roeg's montage of aural elements, this is still a wonderful digital presentation.
The bonus features here are divided up over two discs. Disc One contains the commentary track from the 1992 laserdisc release and it is a wonderfully informative and thought-provoking account of the movie's making. Roeg is especially introspective, as he's not used to talking about his films in such depth. He goes off on esoteric rants regarding technology, the concept of science fiction, and the linear approach to movie making. He wants the audience to understand that he was not out to make this film purposefully confusing. He is merely channeling Thomas Newton's story through the instincts of the material.
Buck Henry agrees, adding several salient comments about art and artistry to the mix. The writer/actor enjoys dropping names, making fancy comparisons, and expressing intellectualized insights, all in the name of praising Roeg and his oeuvre. As for Bowie, he seems far more subdued—and a tad embarrassed—about what this time in his life represents. He barely mentions his then monstrous musical career (though he does point out that parts of Low and Station to Station were intended for the film's soundtrack), and his obvious unease with his performance is passed away with jokes and quips. Still, the old-school superstar brings a kind of contemporary cynicism into what is a telling artifact from his past. Indeed, all three men make this commentary track a delightful and in-depth discussion.
Disc Two holds the remaining riches. An interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersburg is astonishingly candid and wickedly telling. He outlines, in vivid detail, the narrative design that he and Roeg came up with for the film. He gives away lots of secrets, modestly offers his opinion on the acting, and generally supports a belief that The Man Who Fell to Earth was a high-water mark in modern cinema. Boisterous and engaging, this is an excellent feature. Equally good is the intercut 2005 Q&A between Candy Clark and Rip Torn. Both have nothing but the fondest memories of making the movie (except for Candy's concern over all the prerequisite 70s nudity), and each one offers their view of the story, Roeg's visual style, and David Bowie's interpretation of the title character. Even some 30 years later, you can see the glint in their eyes as they discuss this movie. It obviously holds very fond, fun memories for them, and this definitely comes across in the piece.
Our final discussions are all audio only. First up, the husband-and-wife design team of May Routh (costumes) and Brian Eatwell (production). Recorded seperately, with their comments played over key scenes and behind-the-scenes photos from the film, this is an amazingly dense dissection of The Man Who Fell to Earth's look and feel. Routh defends her "off the rack" reality for the character's clothes (while Bowie's clothes were mostly handmade, Clark's character got the majority of her fashion sense from the JC Penney catalog), and talks of how casting changed her approach to some of her designs. Eatwell spills the beans on effects, the alien world (really White Sands in Utah), and many minute details. At more than 50 minutes between the two, this is like a second commentary track, and it is equally intriguing. Finally, we get to hear author Walter Tevis speak for himself in a radio segment from 1984. While barely mentioning his novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, we do get information about his formative years, and how he came to be a full-time writer.
Toss is a complete collection of U.S. and international trailers, galleries of posters from Roeg's films, lots of stills and behind- the-scenes photos, the book, and a 28-page insert featuring a new essay and an appreciation of Tevis, and you've got a well-stocked example of what Criterion does best—classic film loaded with complimentary context.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For some, there is a question as to whether or not Thomas Jerome Newton is really an alien. Even though it seems pretty obvious, what with all the hints and foreshadowing Roeg offers, it is quite easy to see where a viewer can question that kind of conclusion. We only see Newton in his extraterrestrial persona once, and then, it's part of a drunken battle between the man and his lover Mary-Lou. It is simple to conclude that a life of rife alcoholism has turned both parties potty. Newton allows his genius with electronics to become paranoid, then interplanetary, while Mary-Lou's blinding love turns the object of her affection foreign and disturbing when he doesn't respond the way she wants. If this is an intended subtext to the film, it is a brilliant one. By placing the question of Newton's true identity in doubt, the entire film takes on another, even more intriguing, layer.
Imagine—Newton is not from another planet, just a highly specialized savant who found a way into the world of high finance. His life is spent in pursuit of lofty scientific goals, but he is so emotionally and socially stunted that he is instantly and easily corruptible by even the most minor of influences. Mary-Lou gets to him and channels her needs. Farnsworth forces his desire for power through him. Bryce befriends and then betrays Newton because, in the end, all innovations will be viewed as the work of wounded genius, not those of an educated college professor. This differing view of the film is fascinating, and actually makes The Man Who Fell to Earth a much richer, more engaging experience. Lining up the clues and gleaning the flashbacks for information becomes a potent puzzle box of cinematic enlightenment, and gives this already masterful film a new, novel dimension.
Bess Myerson once said that, "the accomplice to the crime of corruption is…our own indifference." This leads to a very disturbing question: how much of what happens to Thomas Jerome Newton is really his own fault? After all, he is a supposedly intelligent life form from a planet capable of interstellar travel—or at the very least, teleportation. He offers up technology of untold advances and changes the way the world views its relationship to electronics forever. He seems compliant with Bryce and his big idea instincts, and he is always sitting in front of the TV, absorbing ideas, drinking in the planet's diversity. So can it really be his fault that the forces who long to possess power like the deadly drug it is walk all over him and his goals to gain and maintain it? Is he wrong for allowing his extraterrestrial sensitivity to drive his relationships? Can we really blame someone unfamiliar with the rules of the game for failing at its play?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Just because he is different, doesn't mean Thomas Newton should be a doormat. True, Earth offers a different dynamic from the one "back home," but he still should be shrewder, more guarded. Vulnerability is nice in the confines of a lover's bed, or a partner's heart, but in the rough-and-tumble world of capitalistic corruption, it's the most lethal of Achilles heels. Like the myth of Icarus that features prominently in the film, Thomas Jerome Newton tried to use the stained system of the Earth's craft commerce to save his home, but he also flew too close to the blazing fireball known as corruption. Badly scarred, he became the man who fell to Earth. Like the secret photo Bryce takes of him, Newton is now hollow inside. Sadly, all that is left to fill him up are the misguided efforts of those on his adopted planet. If he wasn't doomed before, he is now.
Not guilty. All parties are free to go, and the mistakes made by Fox Lorber and Anchor Bay in their previous releases are all but forgotten. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Novel: "The Man Who Fell To Earth" by Walter Tevis
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