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Review: ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

35th Anniversary Re-release of Sci-Fi Cult Classic

Above: David Bowie is perfectly cast as a displaced alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth."

Audio

Aired 7/28/11

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the re-release of 'The Man Who Fell to Earth."

Transcript

More than 3 decades have passed since "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (opening July 29 at Landmark's Ken CInema) opened to mixed reviews and meager box office returns. But now the film that gave us David Bowie as a displaced alien is getting a well deserved re-release. Listen to my radio feature.

Nicolas Roeg opens his film "The Man Who Fell to Earth" with an utterly mundane landscape interrupted by something falling violently from the sky. The image was inspired by Brueghel's painting "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus" in which the Greek character's lethal plunge is lost amid the details of everyday life. What falls from the sky in Roeg's film is David Bowie as a humanoid alien calling himself Thomas Newton. Like Icarus in the painting, no one seems to take note of him. But instead of plummeting to his death, Newton's fall is a more symbolic descent.

Pieter Bruegel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" inspired a scene in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," and the painting also appears in the film.

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Above: Pieter Bruegel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" inspired a scene in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," and the painting also appears in the film.

Newton arrives on earth seeking water for his thirsty planet. Coming from a technologically advanced race, he files a series of patents that make him wealthy -- supposedly so he can finance a trip back home with life sustaining fluids. But that's all the science you get in this adaptation of Walter Tevis' book says screenwriter Paul Mayersberg in the DVD commentary.

PAUL MAYERSBERG: What struck me was that it wasn't a conventional science fiction novel... there was no hard science fiction machinery, or hardware. It was a book by a writer who was using the science fiction premise of an alien come to earth as a pretext for something else, a pretext for a look at the United States at that time.

So the film allows you to see Earth from an alien's point of view. And the earth he finds is one where the environment is polluted and the ethics corrupted. Newton tries to assimilate into this culture by watching TV continuously on multiple screens.

The film noir plots he sees on TV foreshadow his future but he fails to understand things like greed and betrayal. So even though he's a genius, he's doomed to be a human failure and ill-suited to our planet and the corporate world. In the end, Roeg serves up a tragic tale of a tarnished starman. He's a blank slate upon which others place their dreams.

David Bowie as the alien Thomas Newton in "The Man Who Fell to Earth."

Rialto Pictures

Above: David Bowie as the alien Thomas Newton in "The Man Who Fell to Earth."

The film's re-release arrives as indie films seem to be rediscovering this as well. "Children of Men," "Moon," and the upcoming "Another Earth" all place the science and effects in the background in order to focus on very human themes. The lack of effects and emphasis on a human story actually help keep "The Man Who Fell to Earth" from being dated. Roeg densely packs his film with visual information and a challenging non-linear narrative to keep us engaged and continually challenged. He gives us a film about both aliens and alienation.

The casting of David Bowie is a coup. He rivets us with his otherworldly and androgynous. And we sympathize with him as he becomes a guinea pig for scientists.

One of the interesting things about revisiting science fiction is to see how accurately an artist's vision of the future proves to be. Again, the lack of flashy effects helps. The world of the film looks very much like ours today so we don't giggle at weird costumes or get distracted by big sets. But what's prophetic is the lack of division between politics, government, and big corporations.

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" reminds us of the truly independent and challenging films of the 70s. It's a spirit being rekindled by today's digital technology that makes it cheaper and easier to create a film and defy conventions. Audiences may not have embraced this savvy and complex film 35 years ago, but now they have a second chance to appreciate its virtues.

Companion viewing: "Another Earth," "Moon," "Children of Men," "Liquid Sky"

Comments

Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | July 29, 2011 at 12:41 p.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

More of Roeg's self-indulgent tripe, in an atempt to cash in on Bowie's star power of the time! You lost me after the first reel!

It's so sad and disappointing that the Ken can't have a 10th anniversary run of GHOST WORLD. I know Reading Cinemas screen it once last Saturday with Thora Birch in person, but who EVEN KNEW ABOUT IT??? I didn't find out until the next day. I am going to try and keep my eyes and ears open for a rerelease of GHOST WORLD in San Diego, but I don't think it is going to happen. I refuse to see it again (on VHS or DVD) until I see it first on the Big Screen. If that means having to wait ten or fifteen years . . . I will.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | July 29, 2011 at 3:08 p.m. ― 2 years, 12 months ago

I have to disagree with you about Roeg and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. I think it's a rich and layered film. SOme of Roeg's other films, like EUREKA, are definitely self-indulgent but this one not so.

As for GHOST WORLD, I hope it gets a re-release so you can see it. It is exquisitely done.

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