Blu-ray Review: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH - Hallucinatory, Haunting & Obscure

Nicolas Roeg is perhaps the quintessential British auteur. His work celebrates the eccentric, the askew; he€™s the madman with the movie camera. Those that celebrate his style, as realised most vividly in his three bone fide classics, Performance (with Donald Cammell), Don€™t Look Now and his 1976 slice of sci-fi lyricism, The Man Who Fell to Earth, enjoy the obfuscation, the challenge to an audience often spoon fed meaning, asked to extract their own. They embrace the movies€™ artistic playfulness, the avant garde attitude with a home counties accent and the rewards that come from repeated viewings. Roeg€™s best films are substantial and difficult but never less than mesmerising. Quoting Voltaire, Roeg is said to be fond of the legend €œI€™m not interested in the triumph of the immediate€ and that€™s just as well, as something like The Man Who Fell to Earth, with its withdrawn protagonist and fractured, hallucinatory narrative, immediately alienated mass audiences with a taste for perfunctory, two-tone, adolescent space operas. Roeg€™s film has a mind and it€™s one fronted loaded with ideas and soaked in chemical stimulants. It€™s an adult parable with a sci-fi backstory, not a film made to sell toys, and consequently Roeg showed what could be done with the genre when it was pulled taunt over many themes, often splitting the harder he tugged at the edges. It€™s a sci-fi film saturated in sex and melancholy, a film in which sound and editing are fully paid up members of the cast. You€™re an arm€™s length observer to Bowie€™s odyssey, accompanied by a jukebox of old favourites, all of which have speaking parts. Detractors have often pointed the finger at its wilful inaccessibility, a charge that the filmmakers deny. They€™re right to do so because it€™s a film that becomes more coherent upon repeated viewings. One of the advantages of having the newly released Blu-ray is that you can experience it just as it was intended €“ often and with fresh eyes. What€™s certainly true, whatever the protestations of those involved, is that both Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg consciously fashioned a story that had to be read and re-read because the expositionary pages had been torn out. Bowie€™s Newton never ages, though the characters around him advance a couple of decades, maybe more. The maybe is there because there are no cues to guide you, no intertitles. Watching it is like enjoying Bowie€™s alien dream. The film develops its themes of consumerism, ecology and identity with a detachment that befits Newton€™s fish out of water and quiet observer; a character who becomes discombobulated with the audience as the film progresses. Few films have asked the viewer to identify with such an otherworldly figure, someone so detached from the mores of collective experience. This one dares and consequently it€™s not a casual watch. You€™re required to join in. For those with the requisite patience, who don€™t mind showing up to work, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a deeply rewarding movie. David Bowie is oddly heartbreaking in the lead, a shy character whose vulnerability makes the degenerating effects of American Culture, the television, the alcohol, the milk and cookies domesticity and decadence, that much more tragic. One might conceivably accuse Roeg of trying to have it both ways, both critiquing the excesses and revelling in them, given the director€™s lecherous eye, but this isn€™t a reactionary movie, you need only look at its treatment of religion and sex to see that, rather one that paints a picture of a world that€™s listless and self-serving. It€™s a malaise that€™s highly contagious and one that ultimately frustrates Bowie€™s noble purpose. You cried when the Earth nearly killed E.T but he got to make a friend and go home. Our home becomes Bowie€™s home and the result is a broken spirit. Imagine Spielberg making something like that.

Quality

The Blu-ray release is the perfect opportunity to get to grips with the film€™s formal pleasures, specifically the use of montage and sound design that give the film a hypnotic quality. An excellent transfer ensures you€™ve no reason not to enjoy those elements to the full.

Extras

€ Interviews with key cast and crew, though not Mr Bowie € Watching the Alien documentary € Trailer
Bowie is the conspicuous absentee from everything presented on this disc, which constitutes something of a drought. You won€™t find him in the ten year old documentary, €œWatching the Alien€ that appears, late of the DVD, featuring interviews and anecdotes from Roeg and Candy Clark, amongst others. A series of new interviews featuring many of the same people feels like duplication, though between the two you do get to tease out a few insights, namely Clark telling herself that her nudity was €œcutting edge€ rather than exploitative and, in a lesson to jobbing actresses, that she was sleeping with both the executive producer and the director, though thankfully not at the same time. An audio interview with Walter Tevis, scribe of the source novel adds no insight to the movie but the trailer€™s a nice curio. It€™s all rather cobbled together and slapdash. A pity that there€™s no new material or analysis of what is, by common consent, a deeply complicated movie. David Bowie€™s own insights and memories, including a discussion of the soundtrack that never was due to legal wrangling, would have got my vote as essential additions but it wasn€™t to be. Aficionados of British Cinema will want to plug the gap in their collection if they don€™t already own this title but Roeg fans may think it worth waiting for something more essential. The Man Who Fell To Earth is released on Blu-ray April 4th.
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Ed, or Extreme Discernment, is experimental Film and Television critiquing software developed by and for What Culture. Invested with over 3 million digitised artefacts, spanning 80 years and including volumes of criticism from luminaries such as Paul Ross and TV’s Alex Zane, Ed generates the best reviews money can buy. Ed’s editor plug in also allows him to oversee The Ooh Tray, a magnificent film and literature review. Follow Ed’s digi-pronouncements on Twitter: @edwhitfield