The Man Who Fell to Earth (Limited Collector's Edition) Review

(There's a previous review of The Man Who Fell to Earth on this site which I quite like, written by Gary Couzens and covering the Criterion Collection DVD. I'll nonetheless share some brief reactions, as it's among my favorite films.)

I looked at my Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Man Who Fell to Earth not long ago, just before the new year actually. I'd been thinking about David Bowie, as one typically does every few days. There seemed to be a special emphasis all around to reflect on the year that had passed. In case anyone's already forgotten, it was a shitty year pretty much top to bottom. We all should have known something was up early on when Bowie died. That end-of-year reflection nonsense poured salt onto the wound as far as I'm concerned.

Listening to Bowie's music is one (glorious) thing but discovering or revisiting his film roles has a special function of its own. I saw The Hunger recently, and that picture nearly evaporates once Bowie checks out - so much so that it needs a Catherine Deneuve-Susan Sarandon love scene just to keep a pulse. Bowie's screen presence sometimes gets shuffled around a bit in reviews and the like, yet his very alien quality tends to elevate the material into something different and exciting each and every time he's there. Among musical heroes turned actors, only Frank Sinatra really rivals Bowie for breadth and impact. And Sinatra, to my knowledge, never played a vampire, an alien, a goblin king, Andy Warhol, Tesla, or Pontius Pilate.

The signature performance Bowie gave is probably still his Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. There's ample vulnerability in the role of an alien who's come looking for a way to provide water to his desert planet and the family he left behind on it. I think the emotional impact of seeing Bowie, who's pretty much the perfect embodiment of a sophisticated being from another planet, quietly yearn for his wife and children via Roeg's splendid editing is what most affects me upon seeing the movie time and again. Maybe a first viewing of this difficult, murky masterpiece can be intimidating. A second time through clarifies some things plot-wise, and lets the viewer attach himself better to the film's wavelength. By the third watch, everything you're unsure of sinks in like a warm drink and connections are wholly forged.

The narrative delivers in an unusual way. Jumps of time and moments of significance are subtle when compared to most cinema. The audience must be patient and either trust Roeg or buy into what's going on enough so that the plot takes a backseat, at least on those first couple of viewings. We're also met with other characters who tend to complicate matters as much as they shed light on what's going on. Rip Torn's Bryce, a college professor turned employee of Newton's World Corp., is never painted as an antagonist in the film despite being the one who sells out Newton to the government. Mary Lou, played to perfection by Candy Clark, is a slightly tragic simpleton and the only human Newton seems to tolerate (perhaps because of her limited intellect). Buck Henry is Farnsworth, Newton's lawyer turned World Corp. executive who also has an ultimately unfortunate arc in what becomes a sharp critique of capitalism.

From a personal standpoint, I find cinema most persuasive when it's emotionally affecting. The subjective nature inherent to that quality is where roads split, but a film like The Man Who Fell to Earth ticks the boxes for me because it combines mystery and empathy and it does so in a pretty unique fashion. There's the almost constant intrigue of "where are we going" narratively and the brilliant characterization of the protagonist as an innocent corrupted and destroyed by forces he doesn't understand. These twin layers of reflection are massively affecting. Working from a (somewhat altered though still magnificent at its core) novel by Walter Tevis, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg created a beautifully rebellious ode to non-conformity in which the most sensitive of viewers will not only identify with an alien but also empathize and, however briefly, understand him. He is us, we are him, and so on.

The Discs

Lionsgate in the U.S. somewhat mimic last year's StudioCanal release by bringing The Man Who Fell to Earth to Blu-ray in a lavish deluxe edition. Here we have a BD, a DVD, a Digital HD code, four postcards, a reproduction of the press booklet, a fold-out poster for the re-release, and a 72-page bound booklet. It's an astonishing collection of bonus materials for today's home market in the U.S. Packaging consists of a thick cardboard box housing a standard Blu-ray case, the booklets, poster, and postcards.

The 2.35:1 aspect ratio image derives from a recent restoration or so one would think. The UK version was advertised as being sourced from a new "40th Anniversary 4K Restoration" and a poster reprinted in the included booklet here touts as much. I don't have the StudioCanal UK edition to compare this against but I do own the Criterion Collection release and this looks to me to be the lesser of the two. Though it's still a clean, altogether decent transfer, there are inconsistencies in sharpness and detail. Nothing in these materials claims it to be sourced from that same restoration. The bitrate is also reduced from both the Criterion and the UK iteration. How frustrating for the U.S. market to be fed an inferior product than both what exists happily in the UK and what was found on an earlier release that lapsed only because of rights issues.

Audio measures up reasonably well via the English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Clarity and dimension of the music and dialogue never encounter any problems. English subtitles for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles are also included.

Extra features generally reproduce the offerings from the UK issue but do omit a couple of notables. One is a bonus CD of the soundtrack. The other is a 25-minute featurette entitled "Watching the Alien" that dates all the way back to a 2003 Anchor Bay DVD release. The extra features that did find their way to this release can be found on both the Blu-ray as well as on a second DVD reserved for bonus material.

A total of eight interviews are included, half of which are new for this release and the other half being carryovers from a 2011 StudioCanal Blu-ray. Newly filmed are the sit-downs with costume designer May Routh (14:44), stills photographer David James (8:38), producer Michael Deeley (16:25), and Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson (11:20).

The older interviews, all of which are in quite dreadful quality, are with actress Candy Clark (27:47), director Nicolas Roeg (33:28), screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (31:51), and cinematographer Tony Richmond (21:48). Of the whole octet, the Clark and Mayersberg segments are particularly interesting - the former for her recounting of finally getting the full, uncut film to American audiences after years of a bastardized version and the latter for his general insight into the origins and making of the film.

New featurette "The Lost Soundtracks" (16:44) has interviews with arranger Paul Buckmaster and John Phillips' biographer Chris Campion. It's a neat re-telling of what exactly happened on the way to Bowie's soundtrack being scrapped and Phillips stepping in to provide the trip through Americana that Nic Roeg wanted in his film.

Also quite cool is a 1977 French TV interview (8:20) with David Bowie. He's there to promote The Man Who Fell to Earth but doesn't speak any French. The interviewer/host translates Bowie's answers into often less interesting phrases that also seem to frequently simplify or misconstrue what he said. It's a fun bit of fluff.

The film's trailer (2:21) completes the digital extras.

Again, to recap what's also inside the main cardboard case of the release, there's a lengthy, 72-page booklet with an essay by David Jenkins on the film and another on the soundtrack written by Chris Campion. A fold-out of the re-release poster and an insert reprint of the press booklet are also included, as are four postcards. The standard Blu-ray case contains a single Blu-ray, a pair of DVDs and a code for Digital HD.

Final Thoughts

This is a rather frustrating release. It's the exact kind of edition that theoretically should be supported, particularly on the American marketplace, as it's a niche title packed with special features and premium knick knacks. But the quality is cause for concern since it doesn't seem to be sourced from the same 4K restoration as was utilized for last year's UK release. Criterion does this sort of thing so much better, and it's unfortunate that StudioCanal couldn't have just licensed it out again to put that label's edition back into print.

10 out of 10
7 out of 10
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8 out of 10

A frustrating release of a science fiction masterpiece. This Lionsgate/StudioCanal edition doesn't seem to utilize the same 4K restoration as the UK edition did last year. Those unable to import or find the very expensive and out of print Criterion Collection edition are still encouraged to take the plunge.


out of 10

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