We all know the amazing David Bowie as one of the greatest musicians who ever lived, delivering a number of brilliant albums that included “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” “Hunky Dory,” and “Space Oddity,” but surprisingly there are those that forget that he also dabbled quite a bit in acting as well. In this regard, I think it’s easy to say that most remember him as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s fantasy classic “Labyrinth,” a film in which his charm and charisma really comes through. On the opposite side, we’ve also seen him rather subdued in roles like Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s mystery masterpiece “The Prestige” and for his very first major role in a motion picture as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
The latter recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and despite having heard many things about it over the course of several years, is one that I had never gotten around to seeing until now. For this special anniversary, a collector’s edition of the film has been released, making it no better time to see if it stacks up to the mostly glowing reviews and adoration of sci-fi fans who have praised it in the last few decades.
To describe the plot of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is a little difficult as it only really loosely hangs on to one throughout the film, but as far as the basic story goes, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is an alien who comes to Earth to bring water back to his planet, which is experiencing a severe drought. He first acquires the services of Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to secure patents that make them both extremely rich, leading to the creation of a company known as World Enterprises. Thomas leaves the running of the company to Farnsworth while building on a relationship with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), but when a doctor who works for his company (Rip Torn) discovers his secret, he decides to reveal his true self to her. Thomas eventually tries to go home, but is detained by unidentified persons (the government perhaps?), leaving us to wonder if he’ll ever get back to his planet, where his wife and children await.
In the 40 years since its release, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” has garnered something of a cult status among sci-fi fans, with many praising it for its production design and David Bowie’s strange, but curiously engaging, performance. Major critics were a little more divided, with some calling it “provocative,” while others called it “empty.” Alas, after finally sitting through the entirety of Roeg’s cult classic, I’d have to lean more towards the latter in terms of summing up my reaction to the film.
There is indeed an intriguing and potentially provocative story buried within the film, but Roeg and his screenwriter (Paul Mayersberg, adapting from the novel by Walter Tevis) don’t seem very interested in exploring it, instead meandering about with Thomas’ experiences on Earth and concentrating far more on the film’s gorgeous look. It doesn’t take long to see why someone would describe the film as being empty, especially since the screenplay doesn’t take the time to flesh any of these characters out, all the while trying to tell this tale in a very choppy fashion. By the time you get to the end of this 140-minute venture, you get the feeling of having just watched an art project gone wrong, one in which the aesthetics was prioritized over the story and characters.
At the very least, there is the production design to admire, for while your mind won’t be engaged, it gives your eyes something to concentrate on, while David Bowie’s performance helps to get you through the elongated runtime as well. It just leaves you wishing that there was more to it than this, while at the same time making you wonder how the talent here (including director Nicolas Roeg, who also gave us “Don’t Look Now”) managed to let things get so out of hand. In the right hands, this story could have been utterly fascinating and compelling, but as it’s presented here, it’s cold, distant, and quite a mess. It may be considered a cult classic, but after finally seeing it, it becomes all too clear why it’s not discussed much beyond that.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” returns to Blu-ray in a 2.35:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of mostly decent quality. This being an older film, there is a fair amount of grain to be found in the picture, but for the most part, it’s a pretty good image that shows off the film’s beautiful style. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is excellent, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and soundtrack in excellent quality. Overall, the restoration has been mostly successful and is sure to please the film’s cult following.
David Bowie Interview – French TV 1977 (8 Minutes)
New Interview with Costume Designer May Routh (15 Minutes)
New Interview with Stills Photographer David James (9 Minutes)
New Interview with Fan Sam Taylor-Johnson (11 Minutes)
New Interview with Producer Michael Deeley (16 Minutes)
The Lost Soundtracks Featurette, Featuring Interviews with Paul Buckmaster and Author Chris Campion (17 Minutes)
Interview with Candy Clark (28 Minutes)
Interview with Writer Paul Mayersberg (32 Minutes)
Interview with Cinematographer Tony Richmond (22 Minutes)
Interview with Director Nicolas Roeg (33 Minutes)
As you can see, there is a wide range of interviews (totaling over three hours) here that include the director, screenwriter, co-producer, and stars. They are rather fascinating to watch as they describe how they became involved with the film and their experience working on it, with Roeg, Deeley, and Mayersberg being particularly informative. The set also comes with a booklet containing notes that provide more intriguing insight on the film.
Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” features a fine performance from David Bowie and a gorgeous production design, but the story is ultimately a choppy, unfocused, and meandering mess that results in a cold and distant film. What should have been a rather fascinating and compelling tale of an alien desperately trying to save his home planet from a drought instead becomes a tedious and mostly forgettable experience that could have been so much more, leaving little wonder as to why it had to settle for its cult status.
Available on Special Edition Blu-ray starting tomorrow.