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Review: 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'

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

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

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

KPBS-FM Radio Film Review: "The Man Who Fell to Earth" By Beth Accomando Air date: July 28, 2011 HOST INTRO: More than 3 decades have passed since "The Man Who Fell to Earth" opened to mixed reviews and meager box office returns. But now the film that gave us David Bowie as a displaced alien is getting rereleased. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando relishes the chance to revisit the trippy sci-fi classic. FELL (ba).wav 3:56 (Music out at 4:41) Tag: "The Man Who Fell to Earth" opens tomorrow (Friday) at Landmark's Ken Cinema. Be listening next week for Beth's feature on "Another Earth." TZFELL.wav It's been 35 years since the trippy sci-fi film "The Man Who Fell to Earth" played the big screen. CLIP You know I really like you mister. What do you do? For a living I mean... Just visiting... Oh you're a traveler. (:13) David Bowie is perfectly cast as an interstellar traveler in the 1976 film that is being re-released this weekend. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando revisits the film later on Morning Edition. Nicholas Roeg opens his film "The Man Who Fell to Earth" with an utterly mundane landscape interrupted by something falling violently from the sky. CLIP Spaceship crash lands. 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. CLIP What do you want? I want a lawyer well versed in patents. 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. CLIP Newton watching TV 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. 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. CLIP I want to go home... 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. CLIP I beg you to reconsider Mr. Farnsworth. The world is ever changing like our own solar system. And a corporation the size of yours has a duty to recognize that fact. "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. For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando.

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.

The Man Who Fell To Earth - Rialto Pictures 35th Anniversary Trailer

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
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
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"

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