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The Criterion Collection presents
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Blu-ray) (1976)

"You're really a freak. I don't mean that unkindly. I like freaks."
- Mary Lou (Candy Clark)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: December 15, 2008

Stars: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry
Other Stars: Bernie Casey, Jackson D. Kane, Rick Riccardo, Tony Mascia
Director: Nicolas Roeg

Manufacturer: Criterion Post
MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, sexuality, violence, disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 02h:19m:00s
Release Date: December 16, 2008
UPC: 715515034128
Genre: sci-fi

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Rock star David Bowie leaped to unforgettable screen stardom in his debut film, this Nicolas Roeg adaptation of Walter Tevis' 1963 sci-fi tale of betrayal and hopelessness. Roeg's exquisite visual sense and the inspried casting has made this a modern classic of sci-fi with a core much more attuned to the human than the technological, replete with elements of Burroughs, classic film and mythology. The film was cut by 20 minutes or so on its original American theatrical release, although it has generally been released on video in its full 139-minute international form, which is the case on this disc.

Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien emissary sent from the planet Anthea in a desperate effort to save both his own dying planet and to prevent us from destroying our own. Armed with knowledge of Earth from broadcasts, he is quickly able to amass a fortune with the help of patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). But he has issues with our planet, beginning with our gravity, culminating in a disastrous elevator ride with hotel employee Mary Lou (Candy Clark). She tries to nurse him back to health, and they form a bond lubricated by copious amounts of gin. Meanwhile, Professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) has gotten intrigued by Newton's mysterious company, World Enterprises, and arranges to get employment with the corporation in order to get to the bottom of Newton's secrets.

Roeg has a striking visual sense that may be at its height in this film. Virtually every shot is agonizingly beautiful, from the shots of dying Anthea to the lakeside base of Newton's operations to build a spacecraft. Echoing visuals are common, particularly with repeating mirrors, some of them including distortions. Thematically, this ties in with the repeated tropes of falling and sight. These elements recur over and over in different combinations, with the Icarus element in high profile throughout. Viewing, sight and vision keep being referenced both onscreen and in dialogue, from the anonymous government suit that observes Bowie's descent to earth, to Farnsworth's extreme Coke-bottle glasses to the multiple televisions Newton watches as he tries to forget the betrayal of his species and his own sad decline. On occasion, these motifs become a bit self-consciously artsy, in slow-motion shots of diving or spinning in the air, but on the whole they work quite well in tying the unified whole together. The structure is slightly complex, with numerous flashbacks to Anthea, but a close viewing allows one to follow the story easily enough. There is one utterly odd moment, in which Newton has a flashback to pioneer Earth that triggers a memory of his life on Anthea; a memory of a television program? Or a displacement in time as well as space?

No one could possibly embody the distant, otherworldly Newton any better than Bowie, who in his frailty and detachment is the perfect personification of the alien. He has an excellent chemistry with Clark, who credibly takes on the parts of surrogate wife and mother to him (as well as portraying his wife on the desert planet Anthea). Even though the script calls for a great deal of nudity (significant even by 1970s standards, let alone today), they seem quite comfortable with each other and genuinely close. Torn has an interesting part to work with as the intellectual who is determined to learn about Newton while under surveillance himself; it's a fairly subdued performance that nicely counterpoints the more flamboyant portrayals in the film. Comedian Buck Henry's part is fairly small but pivotal, with just the right humorous edge.

Much sci-fi is rather cold, especially the darker and bleaker visions of the future. But even though this is ultimately one of the more depressing movies ever shot, it never gives up its humanity at its core; the sci-fi backstory isn't the heart of the tale, but rather an examination of what makes us human, and whether that's a good thing to be. The effects of alcohol inexorably blend with the 'going native' aspects of Heart of Darkness as well as the central tenet of Vonnegut's Mother Night (you eventually become what you pretend to be). Newton quickly absorbs the vices of those around him, most notably Mary Lou's fondness for drink, to the point of self-destructiveness. The tragedy inherent in the story is deeply moving, even for those who don't much care for science fiction. Despite some unfortunate musical choices (most notably an inappropriate inclusion of Holst's Mars, the Bringer of War), the film holds up quite well and still has plenty to say.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: It was certainly appropriate for the work of a visual stylist like Nicolas Roeg to be in Criterion's first wave of high-definition releases. The transfer is quite clean and no significant damage is visible. Colors are vivid throughout, and black levels are quite acceptable, with plenty of shadow detail. The down side is the pointless filtering all too common with AVC compression, which eradicates a lot of fine detail on medium and longer shots. There also seems to be some digital noise reduction at play, since in the opening sequence grasses vanish and reappear. Texture is generally pretty good, though the cityscapes come off better than the shots of countryside. The dying planet comes across very well, however.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The PCM stereo audio transfer is equally clean, with decent range for a mid-1970s film, though it's not overwhelming in the bass department. Dialogue is clear throughout. Some of the source music sounds rather tinny, though that may well be by design; the soundtrack elements have excellent presence and immediacy.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
4 TV Spots/Teasers
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Nicolas Roeg, David Bowie, Buck Henry
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Galleries
  2. Audio interviews
Extras Review: Criterion packs this release with extras, and they're all quite worthwhile, though this version omits the original 1963 novel by Walter Tevis included in the standard DVD. A substantial booklet includes credits and several essays regarding the picture and its importance. The feature also includes a full-length commentary from Roeg and Bowie (recorded in 1982) and Henry (recorded within the last year or so), edited together. They cover many different aspects of the production, and it's endlessly fascinating listening.

The rest of the extras are quite solid as well (though none are presented in HD), starting with a 2005 interview with scriptwriter Paul Mayersberg (26m:15s) that covers the problems of adapting the novel to the film, including the choices of excision and addition to meet Roeg's vision. Candy Clark and Rip Torn also address the film in a 24m:49s interview segment, recognizing the film's importance and the quality of Roeg's work. Tevis (who died over a decade ago) is present in an audio interview from Book Beat in 1984, which covers his career, life as a writer, his personal problems and alienation as a unifying theme. On the production side, there are lengthy audio interviews with production designers Brian Eatwell (23m:36s) and his now wife May Routh, who designed the costumes (19m:36s), Their interviews are accompanied by illustrative clips, stills and sketches, giving an instructive visual tour in many elements that contribute to the overall feel of the film even though they might not be immediately noticeable. Seven trailers and teasers from the US and UK are present (including a legendary one narrated by William Shatner). Finally, there's a substantial gallery of stills, snapshots, and posters, as well as the collage-like continuity book used by Roeg in making the film.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

One of the classic films of the 1970s, with a distinctive visual style and some great central performances, comes packed with many significant extras. Highly recommended.


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