The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Stumbling down a steep incline, loosely covered in a hooded coat, the slim Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) lands in the desert and reveals his unnaturally orange hair. The landscape gives way to development, and Newton finds himself in New Mexico, where he faints in the arms of a concerned hotel chambermaid, Mary Lou (Candy Clark). In New York City, a bookish patent lawyer, Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), meets Newton, a well-heeled entrepreneur who presents a handful of incredibly lucrative patents and then dubs Farnsworth second in command of his new corporation. In Chicago, a capable but bored chemistry professor, Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), leaves his dead-end job and hopeless womanizing behind to dedicate his talents to the mysterious Newton’s multimillion-dollar corporation.

Presented with a provocative, disjointed temporality, the narrative of Nicolas Roeg’s unique adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1963 science-fiction novel The Man Who Fell... is a richly textured, metaphorically layered picture that continues to beguile audiences. After the picture was dismissed by prominent English critics, the fearful U.S. distributor infamously truncated the film, rearranging scenes and removing nearly 20 minutes of footage. Following a dismal theatrical release in the States, the film gained new life as a cult phenomenon on the midnight circuit of the late 1970s. The Criterion Collection recently issued the movie on DVD, and this edition mirrors Criterion’s admirable 1992 laserdisc, which offered Roeg’s original cut of the film. This disc marks the third DVD of the picture and is the best overall.

Trained as a cinematographer, Roeg had made a handful of successful films prior to The Man Who Fell..., including Performance, Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, and he wanted to push his groundbreaking storytelling methods further with the science-fiction genre. To give The Man Who Fell... its poetic visual style, Roeg tapped former collaborator Anthony B. Richmond, ASC, BSC, who had won a BAFTA Award for his eerie work on Don’t Look Now. Richmond’s cinematography on Man is a remarkable amalgamation of standard sci-fi genre shots, wide pastoral landscapes, multi-layered surrealistic sequences and dazzling primary colors. From the open desert sky to the bright neon of the city, Man glows with a sophisticated spectrum of “natural” light seldom seen in sci-fi films.

Compared to the two previous DVDs — a pale, off-color edition released by Fox Lorber Home Video in 1998, and a very good edition released by Anchor Bay in 2003 — Criterion’s new, high-definition picture transfer is crisper, with more consistent colors. Richmond’s work is well captured, with attention to detail and minimal artifacting in even the most contrasty transitions. The picture transfer allows for added textures within blacks and a more even sharpness to the images. The 2.0 sound mix is very good, although those who like a louder, more enveloping soundtrack may prefer the fun (albeit artificially engineered) DTS track on Anchor Bay’s DVD.

This package includes a specially published edition of the novel and a booklet with essays by critic Graham Fuller and novelist Jack Matthews. The two-disc set is coupled with the novel in a handsome slipcase. Disc one contains the feature presentation along with the excellent 1992 laserdisc commentary track, which offers production anecdotes and comments by Roeg, Bowie and Henry. On disc two, a 26-minute video interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg frames the film within genre and the process of adaptation. In the 25-minute “Performance,” actors Clark and Torn give new video interviews about their work on the picture. A 1984 radio interview with Tevis supplies an opportunity to hear the writer discuss his work. Audio interviews with costume designer May Routh and production designer Brian Eatwell are presented over sketches and stills of their unusual and detailed work. Also included is an array of theatrical trailers and TV spots, as well as still galleries, promotional materials and other ephemera.

With this DVD, Criterion has again mined its original laserdisc supplements, engineered a new transfer, and created some new supplements to produce an exceptional product. Roeg’s meditative tale of existential angst and emotional isolation lives on to engage, perplex and inspire in this DVD. This lush, definitive edition makes “loving the alien” easy.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.