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Alien exploitation
A UK Blu-ray review of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH by Camus, technical specs and summary by Slarek
 
  "With The Man Who Fell To Earth I wanted to get rid of any sense of time, because it's surprising how often we mention it in our lives. One thing got by me until the cutting – I suddenly heard someone saying 'I've been here three months already.' I thought, 'How did that get in?' I had to dub it."
Director, Nick Roeg, Interview SFX Magazine, August 1999

 

Time is a curious thing. Film time is more curious still.

A single edit can take you five billion years into the future or you can cut time up into seventy two micro-frame traumas and call it a shower scene, a seminal lesson that blades can scare the bejesus out of you via the action of the cutting edge and I don't mean Norman Bates and his chopper or some reference to up to date technology. I'm talking, of course, of the sacred razor that sliced the physical celluloid, planned and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, memorably scored by Bernard Herrmann and executed by Psycho's editor George Tomasini. If I can quote Orson Welles once again: "As for my style, for my vision of the cinema, editing is not simply one aspect; it's the aspect." Cutting is cinema and movies play with time the same way cats play with mice; claws out, squeak all you like, no mercy. Nicolas Roeg is a British filmmaker who deserves the epithet 'maverick' every time he steps up to the plate and there are way too few Roeg movies out there for us to enjoy. Time is his narrative conduit and The Man Who Fell To Earth gives you more than enough 'time' in which to revel and interpret.

Roeg's singular vision and individual talent have produced some real crackers. I dithered over the word 'cracker' for quite a while but I could not think of another appropriate word that conjured up consistently compulsive cinema, images and sound that plant creative deposits in immature and mature memory alike; the transference of experience that rings true while cloaked and soaked in technique that makes cinephiles squirm with delight. So there. A cracker can also be a small explosive shocking you and delighting simultaneously. That's Roeg all over. He taught me all I know about conspicuous technique in a discipline and craft that is swift and enthusiastic to celebrate subtlety and invisibility (or used to be). This is not to say Roeg cannot do subtle. He managed to say more about the complexities of the relationship between men and women in one slap of Rutger Hauer's hand in his little seen but unique and singular masterpiece, Eureka.

I cannot think of another iconoclast in the UK that can offer a style that competes with Roeg's truly original contribution to cinema. Gilliam and Burton are both American but Brits in sensibility by any other name. In a recent interview (and I'm paraphrasing), Roeg made the rather telling comment that if you knew what movie you would end up with at the end of the creative process – down to the shot timings – you'd save ninety five percent of the budget. It's the process, the whittling down, the editing, the paring that defines the work and Roeg puts part of that process on screen. Watching a Roeg movie, you're always aware that the subtext has subtext of its own; you're always attentive enough and sensitized enough to know that visually you are watching both a visceral and intellectual spell being woven. You can't push a single aspect of a Nick Roeg film forward and point at it as if it's what 'made' the film what it is. Roeg is a master of his very own iconoclastic and complete cinema. On paper, a disjointed chaotic melange of idea and potential perhaps; on screen, sublime doesn't come close to covering it. A true Roegian delight and very typical of the artist's oeuvre is The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Writing a synopsis of a Nick Roeg film is like building sand castles on the tide line. At first, you may glean some structure from it on one level but give it enough time and the reality of the movie will make once proud turrets rounded bumps and eventually smooth surfaces betraying an unacknowledged past of industry. Like Kubrick, Roeg is well aware that movies are not literary, button-pushing entities but a progression of moods and feelings. For the sake of a departure to write about this extraordinary movie, here's my sand castle. A mysterious stranger arrives on Earth. Having advanced scientific knowledge, he sets up a technology conglomerate and with the massive amounts of money he generates over time, he plans to build a ship to return him to his home planet with sufficient amounts of water (that or rescue his family, no one seems sure). But in order to do this, the stranger – Thomas Jerome Newton – must interact with human beings. Why does that statement presuppose cynicism and exploitation? Because human beings are only human – 'only' being the operative word.

This movie represented many firsts for me as a young science fiction, would-soon-be Nick Roeg junkie. It was my cinematic deflowering when it came to onscreen nudity. It was the first film I saw that threw conventional narrative time out of the airlock. And it was the first time I'd encountered what today would be called 'stunt' casting, matching someone very well known in another field with a specific part and bringing his fan base with him to bolster the movie's appeal. The Man Who Fell To Earth is a true original and in 2011, that's saying a lot. If you want to judge it with conventional yardsticks then you're visiting the wrong site. If you want to give this alien movie some room to do its thing at its own pace, then the pleasures are small, frequent and occasionally dazzling. Roeg has never been coy about screwing with structure and narrative time and in this story based on Walter Tevis' linearly plotted 1963 novel, he lets himself go. Ostensibly a science fiction film by a lone alien presence only, the movie's themes are earthly and universal and show the human animal in a desperately craven and venal light. If the human being needed PR then Nick Roeg would be the very last creative you'd hire. He'd do too good a job at presenting human primates' primal urges and desires.

There is no question that despite Roeg's earlier idea to cast the six foot six Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton in the lead (say what?), he struck gold with David Bowie. It's a truism in the business that if you cast right, that's half the movie completed. Bowie is a revelation. His stark, angular features, the irregularity of his pupil size, flaming red hair, slight body and cut glass British accent mark him out as alien almost immediately especially in the Midwest where he lands. How come all aliens manage to land in the Midwest of the USA? It is never explained how Thomas Jerome Newton got to Earth (I assume Roeg had nothing but NASA imagery and dodgy green optical effects available to him) nor how he became a Brit but it's immaterial.

Going up in a lift renders him unconscious and Bowie plays Newton's fragility and poise like he's been acting for years. This was his first movie role (he'd acted in a few shorts and done some TV work) but you could argue his stage personas had given him enough experience to pull off this extraterrestrial coup. He tries to keep control over a vast business empire but is quietly but assuredly seduced by the human spirit (mostly gin) and falls foul of our less than deserving trait of treating 'the other' like a rat in a lab and in one scene literally. The last line of the movie, packed with sadness and subtext in equal measure, is all too telling; "I think maybe Mr. Newton has had enough, don't you?" "I think maybe he has…" Pregnant doesn't cover it. And why is that last image of the film so easily brought to mind? A man in a hat – but it's an image of total defeat, surrender to all the worst we as a race can offer a visitor. There's a great essay to be written on memory, youth and visual stimuli but now's not the time. I just have to submit to the film's and images' power and let someone else figure it out.

Bowie is more than ably supported. First class kudos to Candy Clark and Rip Torn, two well known character actors in the 70s, both of whom revealed all for Roeg's art. Some IMDB posters seem confused over the necessity of the sex scenes between Torn and his students. My guess is that it's Roeg continually reminding the audience with gusto and wit, that we are still primates driven by base instincts and it doesn't hurt to be told this given how much those instincts overpower us despite any veneer of civility. These scenes are not exactly a turn on but then I was a teenager when I encountered this movie and to quote Xander Harris of Buffy fame, "I'm seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me want to have sex...

There is a sublime editorial coup (Roeg is so, so good at these) during the only scene of violence in the movie (regime change, I'll say no more). Powers-that-are have flexed muscles and as characters fall to their deaths, we cut to a loving moment between those recently murdered (time is held fast in Roeg's grip and released just as powerfully) and then to the architect of their death in a swan dive. This muscular naked man breaks the water and claims his naked woman – a wife one assumes from the following scene. Then the power behind the murders is seen putting his kids to bed and you have no idea what to feel. You have to excuse the rather obvious falling dummies and a dumbbell so light it gets blown into a building by, one imagines, a small gust of wind – film-making, 70's style, 70's limitations. The contemplative dialogue of the 'bad guy' is again telling. It's almost maddeningly obtuse and yet strangely compelling – Roeg all over. He asks his wife… "I wonder if we say and do the right things?" She replies "To the children?" and his last words, "No, everything…" In the space of very few cuts, we've seen points of view shift alarmingly. This is about as neat a metaphor for what power really represents to human beings as any I've seen on screen. And no one but Roeg could pull it off with such style and economy. Yes, you could argue conventionally that it's 'all mixed up' and yes, it is but there's an artistic reason for this so work for it. Roeg is not an artist who slaps down the meal to be consumed without a thought.

Clark is not outshone by her distinctive 70s pop co-star and it's a measure of her talent and verisimilitude that I really wanted her to shut up at one point, the time where love and need get all mashed up. Add a toxic daily intake of gin and it's a recipe for realism and in my experience the kind of relationship I want to stay well away from. Clark and Torn both have to shoulder the leaps in time with ever changing appearances while Bowie ages subtly. There's irony in retrospection. In The Hunger, Bowie ages about fifty years in the space of an hour in a hospital waiting room of all places. But Clark is the simple church-going partner whose shock and acceptance of Newton as a literal alien serves to ground Newton in a thick duvet of nurturing humanity. Bowie never steers too far from detached outsider while Clark is desperate for acceptance. Her layered performance over the contrasting years is skilfully delivered not to mention the guts it takes to be this free with herself on screen. Also notable is Buck Henry's patent lawyer, Mr. Farnsworth. His ridiculously over magnified glasses mark him out quickly as an image to remember but film buffs will know Henry more as a talented writer than performer though the face is very familiar.

Lastly of note is the iconographic alien imagery employed by Roeg to bring some emotional connection to Newton's real family. We are not told but the novel's explicit in mentioning the ravages of nuclear war on the planet Athena. Newton's family (a wife and two children) wear what one must assume are water canisters on their backs and their iPads (well, sort of) can pick up Earth originated TV signals. Dressed in a lighter version of the Fremen desert survival suit from Dune, they travel via what appears to be a giant Hovis loaf on a magnetic rail line. The production may have got away with this design had the actual 'train' been made a little more sturdily. These are all flashbacks of a sort (we also do not nod towards or deal with what space travel does to time, something you'd think Roeg would have had fun addressing) but we do get narrative closure for Newton's remaining family on their barren desert planet. The imagery, again powerfully stacked in my brain from over thirty years ago, of the Antheans twisting in mid air amidst showers of water is one that's so potent and yet so odd that its effect still surprises me. Roeg also uses the haunting sound of the humpback whale to define his alien planet, an effect used by Ridley Scott whenever things got hairy for Jack and the unicorns in Legend.

The Man Who Fell To Earth is an adult film for an adult audience, an audience that wants and expects to work for its art. You want entertainment on a plate, go and watch a Spielberg movie. You want to be challenged and rewarded, get smart. Go Roeg.

sound and vision

Don't be fooled by the opening stock space flight and re-entry footage – from the moment Newton's ship makes spashdown there's no question that you're watching a Blu-ray. The wide shots of the New Mexico landscape boast an impressive crispness and a sometimes eye-popping level of detail, and standard doesn't drop when we get into town or inside buildings, vividly evidence by the wrinkled face and jewellery of the shop owner to whom Newton sells his ring. The usual HD highlights of fabrics, skin textures and the polished metal of cars look particularly good. The colours are generally well rendered without over-saturation (Newton's red hair has never felt so luminous), though there is brownish hue to some interiors. The contrast range is generally fine, though there is just a touch of black crush in some scenes. There is some evidence of enhancement in places, which tends to highlight the grain on areas of uncluttered colour such as skies or walls.

The uncompressed Linear PCM 96 stereo soundtrack is lightly narrower in its range than modern DTS and Dolby Digital equivalents – something most evident in the dialogue – but in all other respects the track serves the film well, particularly in the rendering of sound effects and music. The stereo separation is sometimes very distinct.

extra features

The first extras sit under the general heading of Interviews, most of which appear to be new to this release and their combined running time is quite substantial.

Director Nic Roeg (33:27)
Mumbling at times like Paul Whitehouse's drunken judge Rowley Birkin from The Fast Show, the always amiable Roeg talks about his start in the film industry, the origins of this film, casting and working with Bowie, the politics of the story and the shoot itself, plus a fair amount more. He recalls his bemusement at seeing a version of Walkabout on TV from which it's aboriginal co-star David Gulpilil had been all but removed, reveals that he doesn't own a mobile phone because in this day and age "it's more fascinating not to," and confirms a long held belief with the news that "one thing there's no shortage of in movies is opinion."

Cinematographer Tony Richmond (21:48)
The film's British cinematographer, who first worked with Roeg on Don't Look Now, enthuses about the New Mexico locations and discusses working with Roeg and Bowie, the film's sparse look, its initial reception and the continuing relevance of the issues thrown up by the story.

Writer Paul Mayersberg (31:56)
As expected, screenwriter Mayersberg talks about adapting Walter Tevis's novel, including the elements he and Roeg added that they believed could take place in the not too distant future (their prediction of an America under corporate control was pretty much on the money). He also covers the film's themes and its use of memories and 'serial time', the use of music, its continuing relevance, the influence of Japanese cinema and Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space, and plenty more. Believe it or not this was Mayersberg's thirty-ninth feature screenplay, but was the first that made it to the screen. If I had to choose a favourite interview on the disc, this would be it.

Actress Candy Clark (27:46)
The film's female lead, or given the focus on Newton, its leading female support, recalls how she landed the role (that she was dating director Roeg at the time did her no harm), the casting, playing Mary-Lou, the ageing make-up ("I looked like my mother"), working with Roeg ("the best director I've ever worked with"), reaction to the finished film, her dismay at the cut version shown in the US and her role in getting the original cut shown there.

Audio Interview from 1984 with author Walter Tevis, conducted by Don Swaim (4:10)
A brief but still interesting audio chat with Walter Tevis, author of the original novel, who talks about growing up in Kentucky, his education and becoming a writer. The Man Who Fell To Earth does get a brief mention. I can't help but suspect this is an extract from the longer one on the US Criterion release.

The other two extras are on the main extra features menu.

Watching the Alien (24:27)
An enjoyable 2002 documentary made by US distributor Blue Underground that uses interviews with several of the film's key contributors (perhaps unsurprisingly, David Bowie isn't one of them) to outline the story of its production. Despite some crossover with the above interviews, there's still enough new material here to make it worthwhile, and having already heard three versions about just who it was who suggested Bowie for the role after seeing the BBC documentary Cracked Actor, it's nice to have the dots finally connected here.

Trailer (2:20)
A trailer that shows its age and is very centred around the casting of Bowie, described here as "a phenomenon of our time."

summary

Minor picture enhancement quibbles aside, Optimum's Blu-ray release of one of Roeg's most fascinating films delivers on image quality, sound and extra features, and for UK audiences is the best home video version yet. But those of you blessed with multi-region Blu-ray players should take a look at the US Criterion disc, which includes a commentary by Roeg and actors Buck Henry and David Bowie, a solid collection of video interviews, a far longer audio interview with Walter Tevis than the one included here, and a couple of image galleries. For the rest of us, though, the Optimum disc will do rather well

The Man Who Fell to Earth

UK 1976
139 mins
director
Nicolas Roeg
producers
Michael Deeley
Barry Spikings
screenplay
Paul Mayersberg
from the novel by
Walter Tevis
cinematography
Anthony B. Richmond
editing
Graeme Clifford
music
John Phillips
Stomu Yamashta
production design
Brian Eatwell
starring
David Bowie
Rip Torn
Candy Clark
Buck Henry
Bernie Casey
Jackson D. Kane
Rick Riccardo

disc details
region code unspecified
video
2.35:1
sound
PCM 2.0 96 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Nic Roeg interview
Tony Richmond interview
Paul Mayersberg interview
Candy Clark interview
Walter Tevis audio interview
Watching the Alien documentary
Trailer
distributor
Optimum
release date
4 April 2011
review posted
30 March 2011

related reviews and articles
Don't Look Now
Eureka
Just for One Day: A Tribute to David Bowie

See all of Camus's reviews