Released in the year before Star Wars redefined our perception of the genre forever, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a science-fiction film built upon atmosphere, tone and mood rather than action and plot. It is the story of an alien who comes to earth disguised as a man named Newton in the hope of retrieving valuable water for his dying planet, but while that might sound like a regular sci-fi premise, director Nicolas Roeg – true to form – doesn't play it straight. We don't learn the reason for Newton's visit until we are deep into the movie, and by the point Roeg has already blown open the narrative to the point where it has become a disorienting kaleidoscope of images and ideas. These ideas don't always cohere, but it is a ceaselessly bracing and stimulating experience.
Roeg's first masterstroke came with his casting of the alien protagonist. There has always been something slightly otherworldly about David Bowie, and with his pale skin, elongated figure and androgynous appearance, he couldn't be a better fit for Newton. He cuts an entrancingly strange character throughout, remaining detached from the humans around him at first before slowly finding himself drawn into their emotionally complex world. Newton forms three key relationships in the film – with lover Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, wonderful), lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and womanising professor Bryce (Rip Torn) – but it's through these relationships that he slowly becomes corrupted by the human desire for sex, power and alcohol, and by the all-pervading influence of the media and corporations. The Man Who Fell to Earth is not about a creature who fell from the skies, but about an innocent who fell from grace.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a challenging film to watch. Roeg and his great collaborators (cinematographer Anthony Richmond, editor Graeme Clifford) have assembled a movie that plays like nothing else, unfolding with a rhythm and visual grammar that is entirely its own. Roeg habitually drops key junctures in the plot – sometimes even bypassing years, decades – in favour of developing sensory collages that often juxtapose scenes of sex and violence (a display of Japanese swordsmanship, a gun firing blanks). Sex is central to The Man Who Fell to Earth, not just in the frank explicitness of the acts depicted in the film, but in the way Roeg films and edits these sequences; few other filmmakers have captured the aggression and animalistic fervour of human sexuality as vividly as Roeg.
Of Nicolas Roeg's four 1970s masterpieces, The Man Who Fell to Earth is not his most fully realised (that's Don't Look Now) or the one with the widest appeal (Walkabout), but it is his most ambitious, both formally and thematically. Perhaps inevitably, the film lacks cohesion at times and it feels a little baggy around the middle, but it is such an extraordinary, singular piece of work you simply can't take your eyes off it. Science-fiction is a genre that is particularly prone to dating quickly, but The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn't seem to have dated at all, perhaps because it never really was a product of the time it was created in. Like Newton, it remains ageless and fascinating; always current, always vital, and a true original.
This gorgeous new Optimum Blu-ray comes with a ten year-old documentary called Watching the Alien, which packs a lot into its 24 minutes. All of the key members of the production team are interviewed about the film's genesis, creation and reception, and they all speak with passion and candour about a film that clearly means a lot to them. There are also lengthy, wide-ranging interviews with Nicolas Roeg, Candy Clark, Tony Richmond and Paul Mayersberg, all of which are well worth your time. The package is completed by a short excerpt from an audio interview with Walter Tevis and a trailer, with the only real disappointment being the lack of any contribution from Bowie himself.
The Man Who Fell to Earth will be released on Blu-ray on April 11th
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