Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Man Who Fell To Earth [The Criterion Collection]

The following is a review of the Criterion Blu-Ray release of Nicholas Roeg´s "The Man Who Fell to Earth." This is one of the first four Blu-Rays ever released by the Criterion Collection. The main body of the article is copied from my original Sep, 2005 review of the SD release. The other sections refer directly to the Blu-Ray release.

The American release of "The Man Who Fell to Earth" in 1976 in was badly butchered by its U.S. distributor. With approximately twenty minutes of crucial scenes excised from the print, critics found the film to be entirely incomprehensible and audiences stayed away in droves. When the original print was finally released, with all the deleted scenes restored, the situation was slightly improved: the film could now be considered not-quite entirely incomprehensible.

The story of the film, a mixture of "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "The Aviator," is actually fairly straightforward. Thomas Jerome Newton is an alien who comes to Earth on a mission to rescue the family he left behind on his home planet, which is stricken by a terrible drought. While this sounds like a standard science-fiction set-up, the film deviates from genre conventions rather quickly. After raising some quick cash, Newton hires patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to help him build a multi-national corporation called World Enterprises. The company soon lives up to its name, swallowing up all the competition as it becomes the largest corporation in the world in just a few short years. The company relies primarily on Newton´s brilliant technical designs which range from souped-up audio systems to digital cameras.

Newton remains a mystery man hiding himself from the world, and quickly attracts the attention of chemistry professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn). Bryce is almost as interested in finding who Newton really is as he is in fooling around with his young female students. Newton also attracts the attention of the government which is quite understandably concerned about the sudden rise of a multi-national corporate juggernaut that they have no control over.

Newton is played by David Bowie which must have saved the shoot an awful lot of make-up since he already looks like an alien. Rail-thin, fey, with a shock of orange-hair, Bowie´s every gesture and movement is otherworldly. He inhabits the role of an alien quite naturally, portraying Newton as kind but aloof, always keeping himself in check as he observes this strange culture and figures out what he´s supposed to do. It´s this aloofness that attracts sweet but simple Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel maid who falls madly in love with her mystery man while he is hiding from the press in a small New Mexico town. Newton, for his part, lover her as best he can, which isn´t enough.

So far, so simple, but we haven´t discussed the film´s style yet. If you have never seen a Nicholas Roeg film before, well, you´ve never seen a Nicholas Roeg film before. Roeg employs an intentionally obtuse, elliptical style of editing which treats both time and space with equal contempt. He intercuts seemingly disparate scenes, seeking obscure visual or thematic matches, rather than following any kind of narrative logic. The effect is startling at first as you realize you have absolutely no idea what he is going to cut to next. Sometimes he employs this editing style to great effect. In one amusing sequence, he intercuts a bit of hot-and-heavy sex between Bryce and one of his students with dueling samurai in a kabuki play; the only thing the two scenes have in common is a whole lot of thrusting.

Many times, the effect can be so disorienting that the viewer struggles to figure out exactly what is going on. Time is decidedly fluid in this film, and we often have no idea whether each cut spans a few seconds or a decade. The only clue is the character´s makeup. We can tell that many years have passed as Farnsworth, Bryce and Mary-Lou age, but such leaps happen without notice and are made all the more confusing by the fact that Newton never ages at all.

Newton´s rescue mission soon becomes derailed by decidedly human concerns. His fall from grace is hastened both by the cruelty of man (and woman) and by his own weaknesses. The Christ analogy here is obvious (and was made more blatant in the Walter Tevis book on which the film was based) but with one major difference: Newton gives in to his last temptation, his first temptation, and every temptation in between. At first his motives are pure, but he soon falls victim the all-too human vices of money, alcohol, sex, and, worst of all, television. He spends most of his time swilling gin and watching dozens of televisions simultaneously, content to live in indulgent isolation. By the time the government moves in to take over World Enterprises and imprison Newton, he is already a lost cause. As, we must assume, is his family back home.

In many ways, the film has not aged well. The special effects are smeared with 70´s cheesiness so that they look like a demo reel for "Xanadu." And when we flashback to scenes of Newton´s family, it is hard not to think that their alien costumes make them look an awful lot like Teletubbies.

In addition, Roeg´s elliptical editing, while fascinating to watch, often seems downright silly. Some scenes are truly inspired, such as the sequence in which two motorcycle-helmeted government thugs try to throw Farnsworth out of a high-rise window. In others, though, Roeg simply seems to be riffing with no real plan in mind; he simply throws together any two images he can find merely because he can do it. All the gimmickry makes it difficult to feel a lot of sympathy for Bowie´s tragic hero.