“The Man Who Fell to Earth': the last of the great sci-fi revolution in film re-enters theaters
September 12, 2011
Though it was David Bowie‘s first starring role in a feature film, Nicolas Roeg‘s 1976 movie the Man Who Fell to Earth is far from a star vehicle, and much more a movie firmly in place with the ambiguity of narrative immersed in the striking visuals of the Roeg canon. Of course, Bowie’s performance as an extraterrestrial on film inspired no-brainer comparisons to his alien rocker character on stage: Ziggy Stardust, a musical persona he had only just retired in 1973. Also, Bowie’s fey manner, inhumanely skinny frame, pale skin and shock of orange hair suited the movie so well the man himself seemed a special effect. Even now, on its 35th anniversary, as the film finally makes the rounds in its original director’s cut at US art houses with a newly restored 35mm print or HD theatrical projection via Rialto Pictures, Bowie stands out among the other iconic seventies-era players in the film (Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Candy Clark). It’s fitting his character, unlike the others, never ages in the film. It suits the film that the iconic Bowie has grown more immortal with age, continuing to influence generations of musicians. For Bowie fans, it is easy to watch the movie just to watch the man in action at the peak of his creativity. On the commentary track of the now out-of-print Criterion disc, Bowie noted that he began recording bits of his influential experimental pop albums Station to Station and Low while acting in this movie, assuming Roeg wanted him to score the film, too. Instead, John Phillips offers a widely varied score from atmospheric to funky, but still always dated and firmly stuck in the age of the mid-seventies.
But the movie stands the test of time as something other than a platform for Bowie-ogling*. This movie is also a distinctly Roegian work. Bowie himself decided to work on this movie based on the Roeg films Walkabout and Performance (which featured a rocker Bowie admired: Mick Jagger [again, see commentary track]). Bowie even admitted to never having read the script before agreeing to act in the movie (ibid).
Often compared to Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), the original 1963 Walter Tevis novel the film is based on, the Man Who Fell to Earth offers a moral tale about power and corruption. In the movie, Bowie plays an alien who lands on Earth in search of a means to restore water on his dying planet. He assumes the alias Thomas Jerome Newton, a British businessman with a briefcase full of patents that should make him the money necessary to fund a private space program that will somehow save his planet. However, he does not figure in the eccentricities of Earthlings— with their liquor and sex— and things get tough for Tommy fast. It’s a straight up enough story that almost comes across as a simple fable. But Roeg takes it to a whole other level, seeming to deconstruct the source material, converting the story into a purely cinematic experience.
Gone are key dramatic sequences that connects the downward spiral of the alien. When Thomas meets Mary Lou (Clark), the hotel maid that becomes his companion on Earth, she rescues him from the odd gravitational effects of an elevator. Distraught, Mary Lou carries the incapacitated Thomas to his room. After he vomits up some clear ectoplasmic goo and she wipes his bloody nose, she seems relieved to have not killed a hotel guest. Who would figure these two would end up together? Well, the following scene, both are hanging out in the room. She is dressed for a night out, drunk and pushing liquor on Thomas, who refuses, happy with only water and Aspirin. In the next scene, they are living together and she’s bringing him “that white wine you like.” Up to that point, the film went out of its way to point out Thomas did not drink, but then, all of a sudden he is drinking.
The movie is filled with convoluted narrative compromises like that. As Thomas establishes his corporation World Enterprises, at the start of the film, Roeg also parallels the story of Dr. Bryce (Torn), a university chemistry professor in the habit of sleeping with freshman female students who also seems to be a consumer of World Enterprises’ products (including a camera with self-developing film). Just as his superior at the university seems ready to fire him, he quits. Next thing you know, Bryce is working on a fuel project for World Enterprises, snooping out Thomas as something else than human. Again, as explained here, it all seems simple enough, but Roeg seems to obscure the flow with quick cuts, camera sweeps and zooms, punctuated by sudden bursts of blaring music. It’s as if he is purposely trying to distract the audience away from the story, and insisting they simply watch the movie.
There are many instances of odd visuals and sonics that serve as transitions. An early one occurs when Thomas seals the deal with patent lawyer Oliver Fransworth (Henry) to start a company. Thomas looks out into the night sky where a crooked line of dots expand and burst into fireworks but all one can hear is what sounds like the quiet swell of soft music that sounds like the calls of humpback whales. Later, as things begin looking grim for the drunken, corrupted Thomas, there is an image of him in alien form tumbling in space in what looks to have been formed from sputtering time-lapse imagery to the grim sound of Gustav Holst ‘s famous orchestra of “the Planets.” If you blink, you might miss the moment, as it lasts but a few seconds. Complicating matters is that it appears in the movie just as Thomas and Bryce sit in the desert outside some dilapidated house where Thomas seems have taken residence (why or how long he has been there is never explicated), in what seems a quiet moment. The orchestra swells, and thoughts seem to turn to Thomas’ dying family. Then comes the tumble and fade into an frantic scene of reporters crowding Thomas in a head-to-toe body suit, as he walks to the space ship that should carry him home. Over the din, is the chatter of news reports, talking about Thomas, World Enterprises, Farnsworth. Roeg cross cuts to Fransworth seeming to pay-off an hysterical Mary Lou to let go of the man. “I don’t want your money, I want Tommy!” she screams. It’s one intense, penetration after another into the narrative. You barely notice that Thomas is actually being kidnapped.
When World Enterprises ultimately collapses, reasons are never explained, but terrible things follow, and Thomas ultimately becomes a science experiment and finds himself stuck on Earth. But understanding how things happen in the movie seem of little importance to Roeg. He still manages to squeeze emotion from these proceedings with stirring abstract imagery. There is one death scene that offers pure cinematic poetry of music, editing, lighting and sound. The routine and wordless reflection to the loved ones Thomas has left on his dying planet appear in the film for only a few moments at a time, like some alternate reality squeezing into the cracks of Thomas’ life on Earth. Roeg is creating a film flowing of memories, exploiting the power of the medium to maximal effect while subverting expectations of narrative, bringing to mind the style of Jean-Luc Godard, if maybe he had taken speed.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is indeed so striking visually, it (and other Roeg films) inspired one of Big Audio Dynamite’s early hits. As Mick Jones, BAD’s frontman, and former Clash singer/guitarist, sings on the 1985 single “E=MC2: “Space guy fell from the sky/Scartched my head and wondered why.” The video even featured many clips of Roeg’s movies:
Back in that era of cinema history, science-fiction offered an invitation to filmmakers to not only explore other worlds and make technology, it also meant you could do what you want with the basic tools of cinema. Released the year before Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’ Star Wars, Roeg’s film came at the end of the sci-fi film as intellectual genre/abstract cinema pieces, a revolution famously pioneered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With Spielberg’s human and relatable touch, Close Encounters brought sci-fi down-to-earth while Lucas made no secret of the Flash Gordon serial influence on his movie, which opened the floodgates for the return of simplified popcorn sci-fi, including such dreck as Roger Corman’s Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars.
It’s wonderful to see the return of films like this one and World on a Wire (which I reviewed here: Fassbinder’s prophetic 1973 sci-fi work ‘World on a Wire’ finally sees theatrical release) to cinema houses. For the Man Who Fell to Earth‘s 35th anniversary, a restored 35mm print has been struck of the 139-minute director’s cut. I had an opportunity to preview the digital transfer of that print ahead of its release at the Miami Beach Cinematheque over the weekend. It’s not too far removed from the Criterion blu-ray in quality, but the cinematic presentation cannot be beat. In the projection of the film, my litmus test was to see how badly the orange of the opening titles bled into the image, but the picture was clean and crisp.
You can even easily overlook the grain contrast of the archival images of a rocket separating in space versus the shots filmed of it “crashing” to earth. There is nothing to gripe about with this film, technically, and is dynamism image-wise is never compromised by this new image. Even the shadows are painstakingly clean. The datedness of the film is wiped away to allow the image to breath in full effect on the screen. For a movie that indeed exploits the cinematic medium as brilliantly as this, one has to see it in the theater, and the pay off is immense. I’ll leave you with Rialto’s new trailer for the film:
And for fun, here’s how the movie was first sold to American audiences in a trailer suitably featuring no dialogue from the film (As the voice-over [by William Shatner no less!] puts it at this trailer’s opening, “This is one of the most unusual films you will ever see”):
The Man Who Fell to Earth will premiere in South Florida in newly restored high-definition digital projection, Friday night (Sept. 16), at 8:50 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It will play through Wednesday night (Sept. 21), at 8:50 p.m. each night. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check The Man Who Fell to Earth’s website for its screening schedule.
*Some Bowie fans will be happy to know that, yes, this the famous, original cut that features Bowie frolicking in bed with Clark in all his natural glory, a scene which the original US distributor decided to cut from the first version when it debuted in the US.