The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

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Released 31-Jul-2003

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Science Fiction Main Menu Audio
Featurette-Watching The Alien
Theatrical Trailer
DVD-ROM Extras-Original press brochure
Rating Rated R
Year Of Production 1976
Running Time 133:04
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (62:40) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Nicolas Roeg
Studio
Distributor
British Lion Films
Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring David Bowie
Rip Torn
Candy Clark
Buck Henry
Case ?
RPI $34.95 Music John Phillips
Stomu Yamashta


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.40:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    I started my Best of Bowie review by stating that David Bowie is a very hard man to categorise or explain. It is highly appropriate then that Bowie should have chosen this particular film for his first major acting role, as this film is similarly hard to categorise or explain. Part sci-fi, part drama, part fantasy, part erotic love story and part mystery, this film is a most interesting cocktail. The theatrical trailer bravely announces that The Man Who Fell To Earth is "a powerful love story, a cosmic mystery, a spectacular fantasy, a shocking, mind-stretching experience..... in sight, in space and in sense."  In other words, read euphemism for "very weird"; and to this extent it is an apt description.

    So what is it about? It is basically a story about alienation; dealing with alienation and our fear of alienation. The story revolves around space traveler Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), a humanoid alien who has left his family to come to Earth seeking water for his dehydrated, dying planet. It is not really made clear to us exactly how Newton intends to actually get the water back to his planet, but we do quickly learn that the inhabitants of Newton's planet are significantly more technologically advanced than we humans, for Newton sets about his long-term plans by first lodging patents for various technological advancements, quickly establishing the mighty corporation World Enterprises with himself as sole owner and chief executive. When patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) tells Newton at the beginning of the film that he could expect to earn at least US$300,000,000 in just three years from his new patents, Newton's immediate and impassive response is "But I need more"! - clearly, Mr Newton has big and mysterious plans afoot. Newton then meets lonely hotel worker Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), who is immediately attracted to the pale, thin, recluse stranger. The rest of the film tells of Newton's story unfolding as those around him and ultimately the world at large strive to understand the mystery of this alien.

    This is not a film for everyone. It was directed by Nicolas Roeg, then an established cinematographer and emerging director who by his own admission has always been an unconventional film-maker attracted to non-mainstream stories. True to form, The Man Who Fell To Earth is unconventional in narrative, structure and pacing, and the film requires more than a little investment by the viewer. The director tells the story in a non-linear structure and does not hold the viewer's hand as we seem to travel quickly back and forth through time and flashbacks. However for those willing to invest in this film, they will find an absorbing, thought-provoking, at times confrontational, extremely well-acted and well-crafted movie. I am not saying the film doesn't have some flaws, and no doubt some may find the resolution unfulfilling (personally, it worked for me). There is no denying that the film is bold, refreshing, intelligent and demanding of the viewer's attention, in much the same way as A Clockwork Orange, a key inspiration for the director.

    No doubt the reason many will seek this film out is purely and simply for the Bowie element, and fans will not be disappointed. Bowie won critical acclaim for his performance when this film was first released and deservedly so. He is perfectly cast as the man who is out-of-place in a strange world. Bowie is so unlike any other actor in appearance and style that, in hindsight, it is indeed hard to think of anyone else for the role. Bowie's acting talents are very impressive in this feature - but then again, this is a man who adopts alternate egos with consummate ease, so he doesn't just act the role of Jerome Newton - he becomes Newton for this film. All other acting performances across the board are also first rate.

  The Man Who Fell To Earth may have dated in many ways, like for example the 1970s styles and the various (humorous) references to future technologies, but yet at its core this film was ahead of its time and still remains the same intelligent, unconventional, breath of fresh air now that it must have been almost thirty years ago.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The video transfer is stunning for a film of this age.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 - all but the same as the theatrical ratio 2.39:1 - and is presented 16x9 enhanced.

    After a grainy introduction sequence (sourced from stock footage anyway), the luminance in this transfer is breathtaking - significantly better than you would expect for a film of this age. The image is very crisp, with excellent resolution in both foreground and background, a high amount of shadow detail on display and absolutely no low-level noise issues. The image resolution is only brought back a wee touch by a small amount of grain inherent in the source print, but otherwise it is simply stunning.

    All colours are rendered faithfully, including solid blacks and accurate skin tones. Note however that this is not a boldly coloured film at all, as the director and cinematographer have deliberately gone for a very subdued colour palette, particularly in the first half of the film, with a lot of dull browns to convey the dreariness of the country town landscape and the world at large as seen from Newton's perspective. Certainly the dreary-coloured set interiors and the dull brown suits and other clothing all serve to date this film firmly as an early/mid 1970s piece. But then the film is also interspersed with some bright colouring every now and again to startling effect, and the DVD transfer faithfully captures for some examples the bright orange of Newton's hair, the bright blue skies, the bright red peer foundations and the occasional bright clothing. As a general comment, the colour palette of this film does seem to open up more over the second half.

    What we have here is a pristine film print that has been very well transferred to DVD. There are no MPEG artefacts to note, no material film-to-vide artefacts (only some very minor aliasing aside) and the best part is that there is not even any material film artefacts to mention either. I was pleasantly surprised at how clean this source print is - even the expected odd little film fleck or splotch here and there is few and far between.

   No subtitles are provided on this DVD.

    The disc is RSDL-formatted, with the layer change at 62:40 being unobtrusive.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The audio transfer does the job for an old movie, but don't go expecting demonstration surround sound.

    There is only one audio track, being English Dolby Digital 5.1 (at 448 kb/s). The film was originally shown in mag stereo and the 5.1 remix is a new one only recently completed for the new batch of DVD releases.

    Dialogue quality is satisfactory - it is a little bright and harsh at times, but generally OK. I did not note any instances of lost dialogue due to muffled lines or poor quality transfer. I did find audio sync tending to wander around the visual a little bit throughout, but nothing beyond a forgivable tolerance level.

    The music score has been provided by relative unknowns John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta, who have provided a very 1970s movie score here. However the audio for the most part is carried by a strange mix of original songs, including some well known stuff (like Louis Armstrong, Roy Orbison, Bing Crosby) and some very bizarre but very funny country and western pieces that really suit the quirky mood of the film. As an interesting piece of trivia, the editor's initial idea for this film was to score it using Pink Floyd's album "Dark Side Of The Moon" - i.e. he wanted to use the entire album! - but this idea was only dropped because it was deemed too expensive to buy the rights! (One part of the editor's vision apparently remains; listen out for the very obviously copied Time clock sequence towards the end of the film.)  The original mag stereo audio as captured in this DVD's audio transfer is very harsh, at times screaming out at you but lacking real punch, and often lacking in high-end. For the best example of this, listen to the way the music blasts out at the beginning of chapter 4, from 15:07.

    The mix itself remains predominantly front-weighted and often times front-centre weighted. There are times where the new 5.1 mixing chimes in to deliver an effectively broader - but by contrast to the rest of the film jarringly obvious - soundstage for short periods, for example the duration of a certain song or to give impact to sequences involving a wall of TV sets, but these occasions are brief; the soundstage then falls back rather obviously to its original front-weighting again. Some occasional but effective stereo panning across the front soundstage with music and some sound effects prevent this mix from retreating entirely into the front centre speaker. Apart from the noted instances of music and the wall-of-TV effect noted above, the surrounds are also used well on occasion to deliver added ambience, with things like bird noises and background sounds, to healthy effect, but yet the use of the surround channels is not consistent and they fall silent for long periods. There is also very little in the way of surround localisation effects to justify a "5.1" as opposed to just "2.0 Surround" feel. In summary, this mix is a nice try, but an inconsistent and rather obvious attempt at sprucing up the flat original mag stereo mix.

    Audio clicks/pops/issues comprise a little audible audio hiss in the front centre speaker at times (tolerable and to be expected given the age of the recording), and also some audio hiss from the surrounds when they have no other information to impart - nothing too bad.

    The subwoofer only gets moderate use, helping out with music and the odd sound effect like the obligatory thunder clap, but it does not get a great deal to do.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Only a few extras here, but they are all worthwhile. I would much prefer to see three extras that all add value rather than a bunch of fillers.

Menus

    The menus are presented in an aspect ration of 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced with (rather loud) two-channel audio. The menus are not animated, but they are appropriately themed and easy to navigate.

Featurette: "Watching The Alien"(24:33)

    This is a great featurette that really enhances your understanding of the feature. It is a newly recorded set of interviews principally with director Nicolas Roeg and actor Candy Clark, but also featuring short segments with the executive producer, cinematographer, editor and others. Nicolas Roeg explains how the film came about and how the casting decisions were made. He also provides interesting insight into his unconventional approach to film-making and why this script appealed to him. Both Nicolas Roeg and Candy Clark give an interesting account of what we all want to know, i.e. what was it like working with Bowie.  It is just a pity that Bowie himself wasn't interviewed for this featurette.

    The video and audio quality of the featurette is excellent.

Theatrical Trailer (2:22)

    Presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, 16x9 enhanced and 2-channel audio. The video is a little grainy, but otherwise fine, and the audio is a tad harsh, but otherwise serviceable.

DVD-Rom extra: Original Press Brochure

    This eight-page press kit is presented in PDF format. It is very interesting indeed. It features a short essay synopsis of the film (very well written), some short editorials, background information on the key cast and crew members, and some black and white thumbnail pictures of the promotional film posters.

  

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 release of this DVD is exactly the same as the Region 2 disc, which has been out since July of last year. In Region 1 this title has been available since way back in 1998, although the first release was only a poor bare-bones version that is now extinct, followed by a new Region 1 release in February of this year. The new Region 1 release is a much more serious two-disc Special Edition put out by Anchor Bay. The identical Region 2/Region 4 versions appear to be the little brother of the Region 1 Special Edition.

    In comparison to the Region 1 two-disc Special Edition, the Region 2/4 version misses out on:

    In comparison to the Region 2/4 version, the Region 1 Special Edition misses out on:

    In addition to the DVD releases, note that this film was also previously available on laserdisc, released by Criterion. The Criterion LD contained a composite audio commentary track, featuring David Bowie, Nicolas Roeg and Buck Henry. Very sadly though, this audio commentary has not resurfaced on any of the DVD releases at all, not even on the Region 1 two-disc Special Edition. As it is probably unlikely there will be any further re-releases on DVD now, it is annoying to learn that there is a commentary track out there that will now probably never see the light of day on DVD. This is a crying shame.

    OK then, so putting aside the laserdisc commentary, this is clearly a Region 1 winner, as it benefits from having the film on one disc with a choice of two audio tracks - including dts - and having all the extras on a separate disc. I have not reviewed the Region 1 Special Edition, but personally speaking I would remain dubious as to how much more a dts track could really add to this particular film's soundtrack, given it is so dated and the new surround re-mix effort is hardly The Fifth Element material. I feel that, on balance, Universal's Region 4 release, copying the Region 2 effort, is probably a very good compromise, by keeping the film and extras to one disc to keep the cost down, but also by ensuring that we get the benefit of the best of the Special Edition extras, i.e. the 24-minute featurette. Yes, it would have been nice to also get the poster artwork and stills gallery, but instead we now get the (new?) eight-page press kit DVD-Rom extra, which is probably better anyway in providing more detailed information and commentary on the film. The only other major extra we miss out on is the DVD-Rom screenplay - more in the "nice to have" category than a major loss, as this extra would probably only be used by a limited audience anyway.

    In summary, if you are a real fan of this film then you will probably see the value in importing the more expensive two-disc Special Edition, for the benefit of the dts track (if it turns out to be of any real benefit at all) and the added extras. For the rest of us though, Universal have provided the same very good, reduced cost compromise that Region 2 received.

Summary

    The Man Who Fell To Earth is a film that won't be for everyone, but for those who don't mind being challenged and confronted by their films and don't mind investing their attention, then the film is highly recommended. It is well-acted, well-crafted and thought-provoking cinema.

    The video quality is excellent for a film of this age - a beautiful print well transferred for DVD.

    The audio track is serviceable but very much limited by the nature of the original stereo audio track. The new 5.1 mix is a commendable but rather obvious and inconsistent attempt to spruce up the original.

    Extras are low in number but high in value.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Sean Abberton (read my bio)
Friday, September 05, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 2109, using Component output
DisplayToshiba 117cm widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum/AVIA. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderYamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum/AVIA.
AmplificationElektra Home Theatre surround power amp
SpeakersOrpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears

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