Loosely adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, it depicts the arrival of enigmatic stranger Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) as he quickly makes a fortune by securing advanced industrial patents with the help of a New York lawyer (Buck Henry).
Retreating to New Mexico he falls in love with a hotel chambermaid (Candy Clark) and recruits a disillusioned chemistry professor (Rip Torn) to build a spaceship so he can save his dying planet.
Director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg opted for a different brand of sci-fi, with an elliptical story highlighting the emptiness of existence on earth rather than depicting the mysteries of the cosmos.
It baffled a lot of audiences who would soon be thrilled by more mainstream fare such as Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979) and E.T. (1982), but unlike those films, this is much stranger affair that touches upon deeper themes of corporate greed, solitude and the passage of time.
Over the years it has become something of a cult classic and not just for Bowie fans.
Roeg’s trademark editing style and skill behind the camera is evident and DP Tony Richmond captures the beauty of the New Mexico locations.
Although rough around the edges as an actor, Bowie was perfectly cast as the enigmatic Newton and, living like a Howard Hughes-style recluse, he remains distant and ageless whilst bringing a touching sadness to his part.
Incidentally, Bowie was so taken with May Routh’s costumes that he used them on his subsequent tour and stills from the film would be used for the covers of his albums Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977).
The supporting performances are excellent: Henry brings a wistful quality to his lawyer role; Candy Clark makes for an engagingly innocent emotional partner to Bowie; and Rip Torn is good value as the academic who finds himself fascinated by the life opened up by his new boss.
Like much of Roeg’s work it is a film that repays repeated viewing, containing a lot thematic material to chew on beneath its stylish surface.
Momentous events happen in the background: Newton’s company becomes so big that it distorts the US economy and he becomes a major celebrity figure, but the primary focus is always kept on the individuals surrounding him.
The enigmatic Newton personifies the film: he’s fascinating, mysterious and rewarding once you get to know him.
Part of what makes the film so effective is that we see 1970s America though alien eyes.
The corrupt business and political elites and the addictive qualities of television, alcohol and sex are things that affect the central characters.
Its effectiveness as a social satire lies in the way these themes are allowed to quietly brew in the background and they still have a resonance even today.
This subtlety is also present in the film’s approach to time as the chronological shifts gradually creep up on the viewer.
Like some of the characters, we are left a little disorientated as the years pass by, which is like the ageing process itself.
Modern viewers may note that one of Newton’s inventions is eerily similar to what would eventually become the modern digital camera.
This version is the longer 140 minute cut, with the more explicit – though never gratuitous – sex scenes that censorious US distributors trimmed.
This Blu-ray release is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and the transfer is excellent.
Whilst not as extensive as the now deleted 2008 Criterion Blu-ray, this version has a substantial amount of extras including:
- Watching the Alien documentary (24:30): The most substantial feature is this making of documentary which includes interviews with Roeg, executive producer Si Litvinoff, actress Candy Clark, production designer Brian Eatwell, DP Tony Richmond and editor Graeme Clifford. Although Bowie’s absence is disappointing, it covers various interesting aspects of the production such as the all British crew (unusual for a film shot in the US), Bowie’s performance, the costumes, the non-linear style of editing, the use of music (the temp score used during the edit was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon) and the legacy of the film.
- Interview with director Nic Roeg (33:27): This lengthy interview sees Roeg discuss various issues related to the film including: how he ‘fell’ into his career in the film industry; the speed of technological change; how he came across the Walter Tevis novel and why the sci-fi genre appealed; the political relevance of the issues in the film and the casting of Bowie.
- Interview with cinematographer Tony Richmond (21:48): The cinematographer talks about working with Roeg (he also shot Don’t Look Now and Bad Timing), the novel, shooting on location in New Mexico and the influence of the film.
- Interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (31:33): The writer goes in to some detail about how he got involved in the production; how he kept to the structure of the novel but changed various elements (such as the political subplot); trying to predict the futuristic gadgets Newton develops; the emotional triangle at the heart of the film; the theme of betrayal and playing around with the notion of time.
- Interview with Candy Clark (27:46): The actress who plays Mary Lou talks about how she got introduced to Roeg by producer Si Litvinoff; the immediate appeal of the script; the physical challenges of the role; the significant differences between the novel and the film; and working with Bowie.
- Radio interview with Walter Tevis from 1984 (4:08): The author of the novel talks on a New York radio show about his upbringing, how he got into writing, his first novel The Hustler (later made into the film starring Paul Newman) and how he only quit teaching in the late 1970s.
- Theatrical Trailer (2:18): The original trailer comes in its original aspect ratio and plays up the fact that this was Bowie’s first film role and features a ridiculously heavy voiceover.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is released on Blu-ray by Optimum Home Releasing on Monday 4th April