The Man Who Fell to Earth
February 2, 2006
When The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) was shown in the United States it was trimmed of 20 minutes of footage because the studio was worried that people wouldn’t understand what was going on. These cuts only made the movie more incomprehensible. This new Criterion Collection DVD restores Roeg’s original version in a very attractive package that celebrates this important science fiction film.
Thomas J. Newton (Bowie) is an alien newly arrived on Earth and posing as a British citizen. He approaches a lawyer named Farnsworth (Henry) with a collection of patents that will garner him more than $300 million in a few years. With his patents and Farnsworth’s help, Newton creates one of the most powerful corporations in the United States. A chemistry professor named Dr. Bryce (Torn) from Chicago becomes obsessed with Newton’s company and so he is hired as a researcher for one the company’s divisions.
The entire movie is something of a mystery and its center is the enigmatic Newton. Who is he and what are his intentions? He seems to be working towards something that, initially, we aren’t privy to. One thing is clear, he doesn’t seem to be interested in world domination; and as we find out later on, he’s on a rescue mission for the remaining survivors of his planet.
Nicolas Roeg presents very odd juxtapositions. In one scene, he crosscuts between Newton watching a reenactment of a violent samurai melodrama in a Japanese restaurant to the playful, yet violent foreplay between Bryce (Torn) and a young co-ed. Roeg is obviously drawing parallels between the two scenes but it has such a jarring effect because it is so unexpected. Roeg uses all kinds of avant garde film techniques to show us how Newton sees the world and insight into how his mind works. His daring editing techniques present a fragmented narrative complete with abrupt musical cues that lead us into sudden scene changes.
David Bowie’s androgynous appearance at the time made him the ideal candidate to play an alien from another planet – he had already played one (of sorts) during his Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tour. It’s a very contained performance. The brilliance of it is that for at least the first third of the movie there is nothing that immediately identifies Newton as an extra-terrestrial. There is the curious shock of striking red hair and his aversion to elevators that cause him to throw up and get nosebleeds. He plays Newton as a soft-spoken individual who appears almost fragile with his skinny physique and the way he carries himself.
Science fiction is usually the domain of pulpy fanboy material so it’s refreshing to see a film like The Man Who Fell to Earth that explores ideas in a mature fashion and that doesn’t try to dumb things down by resorting to typical conventions like explosions and fight scenes. Even when it does introduce the tried and true SF convention of the meddling, oppressive government threatening to destroy the benign alien, it is done in such a brilliant way – the State Department moves in on Newton’s corporation because of the significant disruptions it causes on the American economy. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Roeg’s film is science fiction filtered through an art film.
The first disc features an audio commentary by Nicolas Roeg and actors David Bowie and Buck Henry (whose track was recorded separately). Roeg saw a documentary on BBC about Bowie and knew that he was the only person to play Newton. Bowie was impressed with Roeg’s movie, Walkabout (1971) and meeting with him in person and agreed to do this new movie. Bowie and Roeg engage in an intelligent conversation about the themes of the movie and reminisce about making it. Henry talks about how the film is all about alienation – not just Newton as an alien but how all the characters are isolated in some way. This is a solid track typical of Criterion’s high standards.
The second disc starts off with a “Paul Mayersberg Interview.” The film’s screenwriter found that Walter Tevis’ book was unclassifiable and that this is what has marginalized him. Mayersberg mentions that originally Tevis’ book was going to be done as TV show like The Fugitive but it didn’t work and the option lapsed until Roeg picked it up. The screenwriter also talks about how he went about adapting the novel into a film in this excellent interview.
“Walter Tevis Audio Interview.” Writer and broadcaster Don Swaim interviewed Tevis for CBS radio in 1984. They discuss Tevis’ life and career. The author talks about how he had grown tired of traditional science fiction books. He was not interested in its typical pulpy trappings. Tevis preferred to write what he called speculative fiction.
Two of the film’s actors are interviewed in “Performance – Candy Clark and Rip Torn.” They both talk about their dismay at seeing the truncated U.S. version and about what attracted them to the film in the first place. For Torn it was just another paying gig and the chance to work with artists that he respected—Bowie and Roeg. For Clark, it was a substantial role that required her to age and play an alcoholic.
“Production and Costume Design” features production designer Brian Eatwell and costume designer May Routh talk about their work on the movie. They offer their recollections and some of their intentions as well as showcasing some of the sketches they did for the movie.
Also included are seven trailers for the movie including one narrated by none other than William Shatner!
Finally, there are galleries of photographs, Roeg’s continuity book (a funky collage of stills, notes and pages from the screenplay), some great posters from Roeg’s films, and behind the scenes snapshots.