One year before Star Wars dented the broad public conception of science fiction with unprecedented force, Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth plowed a very different furrow. Based upon a very literary novel, by Walter Tevis, it was a very cinematic work, by some of the 1970s most belligerent image makers.
The story is simple, but elliptical. We meet Thomas Jerome Newton, a stranger in the strange lands of New Mexico. He’s an alien, and a family man come to Earth to do business, make money, and somehow save the lives of his kin. At the time the film was shooting, there was no better casting for an inscrutable, aloof but hypnotic alien figure than David Bowie, herein making his motion picture debut.
There still isn’t.
This is not the most kaleidoscopic of Roeg’s films, because that would be Performance; nor is it the most gripping, because that would be Don’t Look Now; neither is it the most affecting, because that would be Bad Timing; but it is, perhaps, his most inescapable and dreamlike. It’s also, alongside Eureka, his most overtly satirical, and the obvious threads of social commentary, most of them assaults on the effects of corporate life and industry, are helpful to hang on to when the plot, not to mention the more experimental excesses of the filmmaking, take some idiosyncratic turns.
Bowie himself is both at home in the film’s 1970s architecture and costumes, roaming amidst the iconography he was so adroitly juggling in his day job as a pop icon, and also in stark contrast to its general level of ugliness. It’s like Bowie and the lighting and framing against the world, and the resulting aesthetic fracas is astonishing to behold.
Optimum’s new Blu-ray apparently marks the film’s 35th anniversary. I’d say five year intervals are about as deep as this “anniversary edition” marketing hook can be pushed, but I’m still waiting for a distributor to try a “43rd” or “26th” stunt at some point. It features a very nice new transfer that respects the original print so much that there’s the odd trace of material damage, rather than any overly-smoothed off digital airbrushing. Many films of the 70s, and before, will look a little soft under the razor-ready gaze of Blu-ray, and this is a great example. For better or worse – and I’d argue better – it seems to me that we’re getting the film preserved with extreme accuracy here.
The Blu-ray includes a ten year old documentary, Watching the Alien, ported over from DVD, and some interviews with the director Nic Roeg, actress Candy Clark, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and cinematographer Tony Richmond. All are worth your time, particularly before a second or third screening of the film, and especially then if you feel like some study notes would be of use.
Many do. The film should reward your efforts, however.
Completely absent from the supplements is Mr. Bowie. Should you wish to hear his thoughts and feelings on the film, your best option would be the Criterion Blu-ray, which holds a 1992 laser disc commentary track with Bowie and Roeg in conversation. That disc is Region A locked, however, so non-American readers be warned.
And, similarly, American readers should be warned that Optimum’s disc is locked to Region B.