The Man Who Fell to Earth Still Misses the Mark on DVD
The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on a novel by Walter Tevis (The Hustler, The Color of Money), is a fascinating, frustrating, intermittently brilliant film that, ultimately, doesn't completely hang together but is far too fine to be labeled a complete failure. Some of its shortcomings are a direct result of its faithfulness to Tevis's novel, which fell apart in its final third. I suspect that Roeg, who has grown tremendously as a storyteller since this 1976 release, would have no qualms about redirecting the narrative today.
That said, much of the film's haunting power stems from Roeg's decision not to fill in blanks. There are scenes that seem to have no point other than to create unforgettable tableaux—scenes of the mysterious stranger's drought-stricken home world and of his journey—through time? space?—to reach our planet. He arrives with a bundle of gold rings marked with his initials ("TJN"—it explains a lot). He sells these one at a time to finance the second phase of his plan, which involves patenting advanced technology so he can earn the billions it will take to return to his planet with the water it so desperately needs.
But he's trapped by a sexual relationship with an Earth woman (Candy Clark) and by his weakness for gin. He seems to lose his sense of urgency, but proceeds with his plan to go home. On the eve of his space launch, he is captured by . . . business competitors? The CIA? the FBI? Neither he nor we ever truly know. He is examined with a casual disregard for the damage it does to his alien physiology, and, finally, without even being told about it, he's set free to wander the earth, half-blinded and disillusioned.
Not only is plot not TMWFTE's strong point, it's almost beside the point. Roeg, best known before this film as a cameraman, was essaying a style of storytelling that was almost exclusively visual. It nearly worked—the film is filled with striking visual images: Bowie peering into an anechoic chamber (which the singer used on the cover of Station to Station); the scenes of the home planet's death throes; and the final shot of Bowie, crushed under the twin burdens of futility and loneliness, simply sitting in a café because, well, really, where does he have to go?
Had Roeg pulled off this near-impossible task of telling a story without explaining anything, The Man Who Fell to Earth would have to have been acknowledged as brilliant. Instead, it just misses the mark, and feels disjointed and emotionally blank where it should evoke intense empathy.
Unfortunately for the DVD enthusiast, there's not a lot to recommend this release other than its fair-to-middling transfer. The film seems dark and grainy in places—possibly a reflection of the state of the master print, but 1976 is not exactly ancient in film terms. The soundtrack sounds overly harsh and metallic; that might have been an artistic decision, the aural equivalent of the sense of alienation predominant in the film, but I doubt it. Nor are we given much in the way of extras: just some print bios and production credits. This is one film that simply begs for a director's commentary.
Lacking one, we're left to determine for ourselves how close to his vision Roeg came. To my eye, he came very, very close—but when I engage my other faculties, it's obvious that he didn't come close enough. Still, I'm glad I got the chance to see the film and decide for myself.
A note to Fox Lorber: The Japanese musical director of the film was Stomu Yamashta, not Stonu Yanashta as you have it on the DVD box. We film enthusiasts tend to get real picky over details like that; please make an effort to get them right.