Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Paul Mayersberg
Based on a Novel by: Walter Tevis
Starring: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry
Running Time: 139 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
The pop star vehicle tends to be a dirty word in cinema. From the cheesy Elvis movies to Britney Spears in Crossroads and Madonna in Swept Away, it’s fair to say a great many megastar musicians have failed to ignite the silver screen in the same way they have a stage. One pop star who managed to collect a number of interesting, if not always successful, acting roles throughout his career though was the late, great David Bowie. From fun cameos in films like Zoolander and TV shows like Extras, to a fine turn as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s Prestige, Bowie used his chameleonic abilities to great effect in a handful of work away from his music. His first starring role in a feature film was in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and, to many, this remains his finest on-screen performance. I’d never actually seen it, so, being a big fan of Bowie’s music, I was keen to get my hands on Studiocanal’s new special edition re-release of the film on Blu-Ray.
The Man Who Fell to Earth sees Bowie play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who arrives on Earth to find water for his dying planet. He shows up at the door of patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), asking him to help set up a company to launch some technology decades ahead of what is currently available. Newton wants to earn enough money to build himself a new space craft to get back home, and indeed his company, World Enterprises, proves a huge success. However, he gets distracted by sex, alcohol and TV, moving in with working class girl Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) whilst rival businessmen plot to muscle him out of the picture.
I thought the film started well. As I’ve come to expect from a Nicolas Roeg film, it looks gorgeous. The cinematography is particularly striking, making great use of bold leading lines as well as some nice handheld camerawork and lens flare. The film is stylish in other departments too, with Roeg’s typically unusual harsh editing style which often feels very ‘of its time’, but works a treat in places. A wild sex scene involving a gun, the song ‘Hello Mary Lou’ and some very quick-fire editing is particularly effective. There’s also an unusual soundtrack with a jazz influenced score and a wildly diverse range of sourced tracks, spanning the gamut of American pop music. The production design and costumes look great too – Bowie’s sharp suits and the boldly colourful 70’s décor are eye-popping. Bowie was so enamoured by the style of the film he used images from it on the sleeves of both Low and Station to Station.
Speaking of Bowie, he is indeed very good here. The role is perfectly suited to him, as he seems like a being from another planet anyway through his thin frame, sharp features and heterochromia (different coloured eyes), as well as his otherworldly on-stage personas. He has a calm, subtle, but undeniable charisma too, which helps the audience feel as intrigued by his character as those around him are.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the rest of the film matched up to the style or Bowie’s performance. Like I mentioned, I thought it started well. The first half, when his true identity is kept more of a mystery (to those around him at least – the audience could have guessed it from the title) is quite effective. The unusual nature of the central character and the draw he has on others around him is intriguing and the bold style keeps you watching. The scene where he fully reveals himself to Mary-Lou is quite shocking and well handled too. This proved to be a bit of a turning point for me though. The film was already quite meandering by the mid-section, but following this it slowed to a crawl. Bowie just kind of mopes around. In the first half he experiences new aspects of life from a metaphorical distance, but for much of the latter half of the film he does little of value, wallowing in self pity in a drunken haze. I guess the point is he’s become an average human, but it’s not much fun to watch for two and a half hours.
The satire is vaguely interesting (with the initially saintly Newton corrupted by the Earthly ‘pleasures’ of drink, sex and TV), but feels rather simple. It’s the sort of idea you could fit into a Twilight Zone episode, rather than an epically long feature film. So it all became a chore after a while.
Quite a few characters drift in and out, but none feel fully fleshed out. Their motivations are rarely clear so many feel pointlessly included. I felt like Roeg was throwing ideas at the screen sometimes without thinking or following them through. For one, we sporadically hear voiceover narration from various characters (but never Bowie). This is used too seldom to work, feeling out of place and unnecessary. There’s a terribly executed flash back in time on Earth too, suggesting some sort of time travelling ability in Newton which is never referred to anywhere else.
Speaking of flashbacks, there are some glimpses of Newton’s alien world and his family that look terribly dated and kitsch now. They probably weren’t that great in 1976 to be honest. It was after 2001 and only a year before Star Wars whose effects still look great today. And the less said about the acrobatic semen-soaked alien sex scene the better. The film is very much ‘of its time’ in general, which I didn’t mind to be honest, it’s part of its charm, but now and again something ugly and clunky sticks out. There’s a lot of gratuitous sex and nudity too as is the norm for Roeg and the era.
So, as intriguingly as it begins, the film slowly stumbles towards a disappointing end. After it was over I thought it was tedious, pretentious and rather dated. There’s not enough weight or drama behind it to hold your interest over its running time. Yes it looks good and is probably Bowie’s finest acting role, but there’s not much else to see here.
The Man Who Fell To Earth has been re-released by Studiocanal in the UK on digital download, DVD, Blu-Ray and as a Collector’s Edition. I saw the Blu-Ray version and it looked and sounded great. It’s as sharp, clear and bold looking as it likely did on release.
The special features on all versions include:
– New interview with costume designer May Routh featuring original costume sketches
– New interview with stills photographer David James featuring behind the scenes stills
– New interview with fan Sam Taylor-Johnson
– New interview with producer Michael Deeley
– New “The Lost Soundtracks” featurette including interviews with Paul Buckmaster and author Chris Campion
– French TV Interview with David Bowie in 1977
– Interview with Candy Clark
– Interview with cinematographer Tony Richmond
– Interview with Nic Roeg
– “Watching the Alien” featurette
– Trailers / TV spots
Exclusive to the Collector’s Edition will be a bonus John Phillips CD, a booklet with essays on the film and the soundtrack, 4 stunning, collectable art-cards, the press book and an A4 poster of the brand new theatrical artwork.
It’s a fantastic set of extras, covering everything you’d ever want to know about the film. There’s no commentary, but with over two hours worth of interviews, why would you need one. A wonderful package, even if the film didn’t really do it for me.