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The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) April 4th, 2020

The Criterion Collection began publishing Blu-Ray discs between 2008 and 2009. Some of those earliest discs owe their sky-high secondary market price to Criterion’s commitment to film restoration and including top of the line special features. If you don’t believe me search Ebay for the Criterion editions of The Third Man, Last Year at Marienbad and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The latter is still available on the Criterion Channel until the end of the month which is we chose to watch it last night.

I need to get this out of the way before we go any further. The Man Who Fell to Earth is David Bowie’s first feature film and it co-stars Rip Torn and Candy Clark. Each of them is fully nude in the film. No one warned me that I’d see Rip Torn’s genitals and I’m not going to do that to you. The nudity is displayed in service of awkwardly performed sex scenes. Beyond this point there be spoilers.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is my first experience with a Nicolas Roeg film and frankly I hope it’s his worst film. There’s some upside to this movie and I’ll get to that in a bit but I want to get the criticisms out of the way first. The plot is solid, a space alien disguised as a human visits Earth in search of water to save his drought stricken world, dying wife and children. That’s a fine start to a stranger in a strange land sci-fi story but The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t get off the ground (gross).

This movie is no E.T., it’s more like a dramatic atmospheric version of Coneheads. The film failed to communicate that Newton’s (Bowie) family was in urgent peril. I assume that’s what it wanted to communicate by intercutting shot after shot of alien bodies lying motionless in the sand. Newton responds by becoming an adulterous drunkard indulging in decades of debauchery. Maybe that’s the point? Maybe it’s an examination of what it is to be human, to err as they say? Maybe, but there were no scenes where Newton realizes he’s wasting his time and endangering their lives, no indication he deserves forgiveness.

It was interesting to watch this film immediately after Bottle Rocket because the editing of both use jump cuts to compress time. Wes Anderson will write an uninterrupted monologue taking place over three or four different locations and use jump cuts to move you and the story through time. At this he is a master. Roeg will similarly jump cut from one scene to an unrelated scene years in the future. You’d better be good at filling in the blanks because The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t use any of its precious 2 hours and 28 minutes to explain much of anything. It’s much more concerned with visuals.

That actually brings us to the positives, namely the visuals. Where the plot and acting fail, the visuals prevail. They’re not going to change your life and I doubt they changed the course of film but they are striking and if that’s something you’re into then it’s worth a watch. Shots of weird aliens covered in goo being tossed into the air by trampolines and doused in buckets of goo when they reach the peak of their arc. If shit like that tickles your proboscis then you might like The Man Who Fell to Earth.

There’s one scene I’d like to discuss a little further before I end this post. See, after Newton’s company endures a violent and unclearly motivated corporate takeover, he is revealed as an alien and a nameless group of scientists confined him to his apartment and use him in experiments. He spends his days watching tv and getting drunk. During this point in the film Candy Clark and Rip Torn, who’ve aged considerably, are discussing plot points in a restaurant when the unmistakable Anton Karas zither theme to the Third Man precedes a transition to Newton’s home prison where he is watching the Carol Reed classic. It’s a scene where Anna is telling Holly that she feels bad for Harry Lime and the scene cuts right back to Newton’s blank face watching motionless. I ask myself “Why is it doing this? What parallel are they drawing here?” My best guess is that Newton, like Lime, is a stranger in a strange land. Both lonesome outcasts succumbing to their vices and leaving tragedy and death in their wake. That or the high price of their Blu-Rays.

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