Our reviews of The Man Who Fell To Earth: Criterion Collection (published October 3rd, 2005) and The Man Who Fell To Earth: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray) (published December 16th, 2008) are also available.
"I am not interested in the triumph of the immediate."
Rock stars think they can act. It must be the MTV thing: if I can make a great video, then I must be an actor! Fortunately not too many singers try to become actors, though the population is growing. Today we're stuck with the likes of Britney, Mandy, and Bon Jovi in film. Go back a few decades and you would have found David Bowie. For some reason, every time I think of Bowie as an actor I also think of Mick Jagger's foray into film, Freejack. I'm uncertain why I have this mental connection, yet it does illustrate one point:
Rock stars cannot act.
Facts of the Case
Thomas Newton (David Bowie, singing sensation and star of cult-fave Labyrinth) is a mysterious man. Appearing out of nowhere, Newton makes the acquaintance of patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry, Grumpy Old Men, To Die For, Catch-22). It seems Newton is a genius and has developed many fascinating new inventions. Using this newly patented technology, these two men start a company called World Enterprises. Soon, WE is everywhere, and the firm and Newton are known around the world. But like Howard Hughes, Newton shuns the public. No one really knows who he is or what he wants. All that we can determine is that he does have some agenda, for he needs to make as much money as possible. For what? We don't know.
Unorthodox college professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn, Men in Black, The Larry Sanders Show) is highly intrigued by the enigmatic Newton. He has studied Newton for years, and now he has been hired by World Enterprises to work on their new space project. Now on the inside, Bryce, like so many others, wants to know Newton, but he remains distant from everyone. But this new space project is very important to Newton, and he soon visits Bryce to encourage the professor to explore certain avenues. As the two men meet, Bryce begins to think he's discovered Newton's secret. Bryce thinks Newton is an extraterrestrial trying to return to his home planet.
Years pass and Newton seems to defy aging. He remains as youthful and pale as the first day Farnsworth met him. Edging closer and closer to his secret goal, Newton becomes restless. What is Newton's goal? Who is he? Is he really an alien or just an eccentric man?
This film has divided audiences for decades. One side of the argument claims that this is one of the most thought-provoking and amazing science-fiction films ever created. They say it breaks the mold and redefines the genre with its fascinating use of symbolism and ambiguity. The other side claims that the film is a boring and pretentious piece of work, that it's a bad film without a set purpose that rambles without thought to characters or plot development. I, unfortunately, have to side with the latter opinion: The Man Who Fell to Earth is cinematic cubism.
I am not a fan of Picasso, and I am not a fan of this film. For two and a half hours I kept waiting for the disjointed scenes to coalesce and tell me a story. I continued to want things to make a little more sense, to guide me to an eventual goal. The film surely must lock down and answer some of the questions. Yet, all my hopes went unanswered as I was lost in a mire of endless symbolism and abstraction.
The problem with this film as I see it is that you never know what's going on. For some, that may be the ultimate thrill, to have the chance to examine each scene and interpret it. But that's not my strength, and that's something I have no inclination to do with most films that I see. While I can appreciate the director and/or writer not spelling everything out for me, I certainly need some structure in my film. I have to have confidence in the filmmaker to have actually left some clues behind for me to piece together at least a part of his vision. The Man Who Fell to Earth is the ultimate open-ended question. Just what does director Nicolas Roeg want the viewer to get from the film? With symbols upon symbols flowing around vague innuendo, the viewer has countless ways to interpret his film. And that is its ultimate failure. Because you cannot resolve the questions and because conclusions are constantly invalidated, the viewer is fatigued and gives up. In the end, I have absolutely no idea what this movie was about. Oh, I have an idea, but I have no faith in my deductions.
First and foremost is the foundation of the story: Is Mr. Newton an alien or not? There is a bounty of clues throughout the film to allow you to choose either answer, and I don't like that. I need a little more sway one way or the other, especially in light of the overall subject of the film. Yes, he's remarkably brilliant. Yes, he's eternally young (or seems to be). Yes, he's really weird and is invisible to X-rays. But, maybe this is all a dream? A result of his fixation with vodka? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine is as good as the director's is as good as anyone else's. You can spin a thesis to make the story work in any number of ways, and that just does not work for me.
While I show dismay with this type of film, others may be excited by the concept. I'm sorry, but I just cannot show any enthusiasm for the film, because the wispy nature of the "plot" left me bored beyond belief. What did wake me up from time to time was the fact that this new uncensored cut of the film loved its nudity; it's full-frontal nudity of Mr. Bowie. I was quite surprised by the brazen, casual, and frequent showing of Bowie's wanker, since today we are protected from such things by old friend Jack Valenti. Obviously this was excised back in 1976 when the film was released, but this is yet another of the subtle joys of DVD: to allow fans to see everything. I have to wonder if Bowie is proud of these scenes.
Honestly, there are a few things I did like in the film. First is that while Roeg's film is awfully obscure, he does have a very unique and engaging style in the film. He explored new avenues in storytelling and visual design. I also enjoyed his creative use of music in the film. Ranging from Edward Grieg to David Bowie, the soundtrack often altered the obvious overtone of a scene.
This nearly 30-year-old film has been given the THX remaster for this release, yet I'm not sure if I should be impressed or not. As I've fortunately never been privy to a previous viewing, my experience here didn't captivate me. The 2.35:1 anamorphic print is exceptionally lackluster and full of problems. While some scenes are crisp and beautiful, the majority of the print is very soft and fuzzy, with plenty grain and shimmer. However, Bowie's pale pallor is wonderfully captured. There are several choices for your listening pleasure: a DTS track, a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track, and your garden variety Dolby Digital 2.0 track. I flipped between the DTS and EX tracks for a while and wasn't particularly impressed by either. While giving a wider and more expansive overall feel, the DTS track felt unnatural so I ended up preferring the EX track. Unfortunately, the EX track's dialogue was thin/tinny and muffled on occasion. All of the audio choices betray the age of the film
I was originally intimidated by this two-disc set. Many times I had picked it up to watch the film only to put it down out of fear of an abundance of extras. Now, I have to wonder why this is a multi-disc release. The bonus materials are all on a second disc, yet I truly believe what little there is should have fit onto the first disc (regardless of its 139 minute runtime). In truth, there's only one real bonus item, a 21-minute featurette titled "Watching the Alien." (On a side note, I think the title of this feature is yet another clue that Mr. Newton really is an alien…or is he?) This piece is pretty interesting, yet it's too shallow. As vague and confusing as the film was, I wanted this piece to fill in some of the gaps for me. I really wanted Roeg to give me some indication about what his movie was really about. I didn't get that. Still, I did walk away with a somewhat better insight into the film than before. The rest of the bonus items are fluff: trailers, TV spots, still galleries, bios, and a DVD-ROM screenplay option. Really, did I need that second disc to taunt me for this?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Who? What? Where? When? Why?
The Verdict is renowned for its negative review of the Kubrick classic 2001. Though I don't necessarily agree with that review, I think that film can easily tie into this flimsy mess. Personally, as I watch 2001, I am intrigued by it and thusly enjoy the film…until we get to the end. Then Dave enters the monolith, and I'm completely lost. No matter how many times I've watched the film (and read the book), the ending just doesn't make any sense to me. That's how I felt throughout The Man Who Fell to Earth. At times, I'm somewhat enjoying the story, but then it gets fuzzy and I'm lost. What's going on? What am I supposed to be thinking or realizing now? Don't be so pretentious and tell me a story! In the end, all I can say is "What did I just watch?"
If you like that kind of storytelling, then this film might be for you. Still, I'm not going to recommend it for rental or purchase. Couple the wanting story with poor transfers and sad bonus features, and you have a very lame package. There's plenty of better-crafted science fiction for you to enjoy.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is hereby found guilty on the charge of something or other. It's sentenced to do something about it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• "Watching the Alien"
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