Is there any man more fit to play an alien than the space oddity himself?
David Bowie seems to constantly redefine himself, changing his appearance, playing very different film roles, and perpetually repackaging his music, once going so far as to create an alternate persona in Ziggy Stardust. He has even blurred the lines of his sexuality, going back and forth about his own personal preference. The man is a chameleon, who just seems different from the rest of us, so the choice to have him play a being who is exactly that is a no brainer.
Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) is an alien, in all senses of the word. He comes from a planet in a severe drought, leaving his wife and children behind, on a mission to try to fix his own world's issues. His every moment spent on Earth seems to have a purpose, to build a business empire wealthy enough to support his goals, though the respective perks and dangers of humanity begin to take their toll on him. Love, by way of the naive Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), is only the tip of the iceberg, as Newton must survive deception, jealousy, greed, and eventually a curious prejudice against him as he drifts ever further from the ability to return to his home.
As a Californian, when someone refers to aliens, the first thought in my mind involves the addition of the word illegal. That may sound horribly jaded, and having such a negative mindset is only reinforced considering how much of a sci-fi diehard I am. Still, the definition of alien doesn't always mean someone from another world, and it is important to consider that when viewing this film, even though there are numerous hints that Newton is, indeed, a visitor from further away than just Britain. It is also important to remember that just because a film is about an alien, that doesn't make it a work of science fiction. The tale shown here is that of a human struggle, even if the man struggling isn’t quite human.
The number of allegories in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' are virtually limitless, which is just one of the reasons the viewer can make his own assumption as to its intent, and this certainly doesn't hurt the replay value of the film, as new meanings can be recognized with each viewing. Newton could also pass as a "Jesus" character, a man from afar, different from the rest of us, who creates a following, is betrayed, and is persecuted. An analogy could also be made for Icarus, the man who flies from his prison on wax wings, only to go too high and come crashing down. Funnily enough, one could even draw a conclusion about Newton merely being a man with a mental illness, rather than an alien, as the examination sequences do not appear to lead to any unique conclusions, while the flashbacks and visions could be interpreted as a number of hallucinations. Newton goes by the alias Sexton a few times in the film, though he dismisses it as hiding who he is to strangers (an irony, to be sure), which could be an additional sign of his own lack of sense of identity.
Another key element to the film is that of addiction. Newton, upon his arrival, treats water like a drug, drinking out of dirty rivers, constantly insisting on nothing but the basic element. As those around him constantly expose him to alcohol, soon his tastes evolve to the beverage, to the point that no other drink is shown entering his system. Mary-Lou is hooked on Newton himself, as she shows no other aspirations in the film other than to have her sweet, curious man. As these habits become more ingrained in these characters, their personalities change, and the way they treat each other is also affected.
While the film has amazing depth and fantastic, diverse visuals, it is far from perfect. 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' suffers from poor pacing, a second act that seems to last forever, and numerous shots that just feel like they would have done the film more justice by not being included, especially the random diving board shots of aliens with what appear to be milk splashes hitting the screen. The film was originally re-edited (read: cut to pieces) upon its release in America, and while the Criterion Collection has presented the original vision in its natural glory in this release, I can’t help but believe that some careful editing really might have been needed.
'The Man Who Fell to Earth' is presented with a 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode that is solid, though not spectacular, with a natural film look, free from artificial enhancements.
The film is full of beautiful framing, including some fantastic lens glares that complement the subject matter brilliantly. There are quite a few shots with great detail (ironically, they are usually the most mundane of moments), though the picture never truly pops, as the film stays very two dimensional throughout its two plus hour runtime. Skin tones felt authentic, save for when Bowie was in his other skin, which looked a bit awkward (read: cheap) with this bump in resolution. The grain level stays consistent, for the most part (a few scenes were particularly busy, but that may have been a film issue), and they're far from distracting.
Softness can be an issue at times, though this Blu-ray disc is not at fault, as the film seems intentionally drab. Colors, though somewhat muted, bleed occasionally, including the opening credits that come replete with a red mist leaking from the text. The brightness would sometimes flicker, and the black levels were less than impressive. The edges of the film can be a bit blurred, lacking detail, which, again, is more than likely artistic intent, though it does stand out a bit. There is a fair smattering of dirt, scratches, and lines across the film, as well.
The above laundry list may sound harsh, but it isn't meant to be. We just have to be realistic about this release. Criterion did the right thing by not altering the feel of the film to correct these issues. 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' isn't overly disorienting (save for the film's content itself), but it doesn't need to be polished to be effective, as the character these detracting elements provides keeps the otherworldly feel of the film within grasp of reality and convention. In other words, the picture quality isn't perfect, but I'm still quite satisfied with it.
Criterion brings 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' to Blu-ray in its authentic two channel presentation, complete with an uncompressed PCM mix. This move may puzzle many high definition enthusiasts, but Criterion presents their films in their original form, and there is nothing wrong with that.
The dialogue sounds great, as not a single word was indistinguishable. That said, there is a bit of feedback that can be heard in many lines, that may be due to the recordings of the track. Additionally, some lines feel hollow and unnatural. The spoken word does get overpowered by the score in the film for a brief moment, but the lines were still comprehendible, even if they sounded awkward, as did the atmospheric effects. The bass to the soundtrack sounded solid, though maybe a bit anemic. I heard some scratching in the background to an entire scene late in the film that did get a bit distracting, though there was definitely no hissing or popping whatsoever here. This track is definitely not one to demo to anyone, not due to it being presented in stereo, it's just a bit plain and uninspiring, the polar opposite of the film itself.
'The Man Who Fell to Earth' hit DVD as spine #304, in an amazing release, with an incredibly thick package that housed the novel on which the film was based. One quick look at the packaging for the Blu-ray shows that said awesomeness isn't included here. There is, instead, the standard booklet, with essays and information about the film.
The Criterion Collection, which prides itself on collecting the greats of cinema, has made a curious selection with this release. Just as numerous works from directors hit the collection (nearly every Kurosawa or Bergman film, for example), the inclusion of the uniquely fascinating, though certainly random 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' seems to merely be in the collection so Roeg’s standout 'Walkabout' isn’t his only entry. This Blu-ray doesn’t turn any heads with its video or audio qualities, and the supplement package is merely a series of interviews, though interesting. By all respects, I believe this release is Criterion in name alone.