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Blu-ray Review: The Man Who Fell To Earth

An alien arrives to bring water to his planet in David Bowie's first movie The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Review by Matt Cummings

When Actor and Musician David Bowie died in 2016, it was as if the whole universe felt the weight of his loss. An individual of the highest order, Bowie forged new limits in music throughout his exceptional career, yielding several spectacular successes and others which are still waiting for the mainstream to embrace. The same could be said of his acting: never one to choose vanilla projects, Bowie's well known for 1988's Labyrinth and his cameo in 2001's Zoolander. But his career took off years before in 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth, an art-house film if there ever was one. Misunderstood at the time for being a series of unorthodox visual montages instead of a connected narrative, it's eventually matured in critic's minds to become a stinging commentary on corporations. But the story of an alien who comes to Earth to bring its water supply is still a weird film, with scenes of full-frontal nudity and experimental vignettes, with absolutely no David Bowie music to be heard. The re-release of his first major film is full of special features, but as you'll read it contents yield more questions than it answers.

The Movie - 3/5
Bowie feels right at home here, inhabiting the role with the true sense that he is the alien Thomas Newton, struggling to understand Earth and its people, all while building an empire to fashion a ship big enough to transport the water. Bowie's act wasn't mere shtick but what I believe to be the artist's view of himself, as that persona played out so well in other films and throughout his musical career. Director Nicholas Reig uses those elements to full effect, allowing Bowie to use the depth of his early talents to help tell his tale. Actors like Rip Torn and Candy Clark join in throughout to help, but ultimately their performances are limited to reaction shots, and in one case, Clarke peeing when she learns of Thomas' true identity. Yes, they show peeing in here too. To Bowie fans, scenes like that and the brazen full-frontal shots might seem like everyday elements from his music videos and albums, but it's unlikely that it will garner the attention of others. I understand there may be a Director's Cut (119 minutes vs the 139-theatrical version), which removes the plot holes and satisfies other issues I had with the film. If that's the case, we should have gotten that one here as well. Even though that might be the case, this version of The Man Who Fell to Earth might find itself in college film classes and at the top of Bowie fan club viewing schedules, but its uneven performances and odd editing by Graeme Clifford make it far from the mainstream and therefore a difficult sell.

The Video - 3/5
Already released in Criterion format in 2008, The Man Who Fell to Earth isn't all that different in technical terms. The outer case announces that it's a "stunningly restored" version, but there's proof throughout that the Criterion version might be better than this. Throughout the MPEG4/AVC transfer there's hints of softness and a lack of color in skin. Some of Director Nicholas Reig's scenes aren't shot very well, with odd blurriness in the corners that even a 4K transfer cannot clean up. But when it comes to scenes that can be improved in the hi-def realm, the overall effect doesn't work. Fine detail is lacking throughout, with even hair (a usual strength of HD transfers) showing up a bit muddied. Grain is also pretty high, which again transfers should be able to clean up. The problem arises when grain becomes so high that it actually mars the image, making it look dirty. That happens here a lot, but the problems don't end there. Shadows also fail to reveal details in black, with brighter colors getting lost completely in some scenes. But at least we're not dealing with edge enhancement, artifacting, or aliasing, which I guess is a positive. This doesn't feel like a 4K scan of a master print, and with frame comparisons with the Criterion version out in the Web, I simply cannot award this a high score.

The Audio - 3/5
Lionsgate's The Man Who Fell to Earth offers a passable but underwhelming DTS-MA 2.0 track that does nothing to bring this movie into the 21st Century. While I understand that the film was made in 1976, this is the kind of experience that should utilize all of the surround field, even if engineers need to add elements in modern times to make it work. The music doesn't benefit from the 2.0 experience either, keeping the LFE in check as well. It's odd to see a movie with Bowie in it that doesn't feature any of his music, but I think the movie would have been better served with his contributions. I realize that perhaps making changes to such a film might seem like heresy, but this isn't a 40's western or a 50's Film Noir. I've also read that the track sounds just like the 2008 Criterion release, although I do not have a copy of it to compare. Still, the audio is capable and dialogue can be easily heard through the center channel. In that way, to remove any hiss and crackling that might have appeared in the original track does count as a success.

The Supplements - 3/5
While the cover of The Man Who Fell to Earth states that it arrives as a "3 Disc Set," it important to note that only one of the discs is a Blu-ray, and that the DVDs are merely split-up copies of the film and the same supplementary material found on the Blu-ray. Nothing here is in HD, and that includes no new interviews or featurettes.

Disc One contains the film in High Definition, while the supplements include Interviews (480i; 2:46:01), The Lost Soundtracks of The Man Who Fell to Earth (480i; 16:44), and David Bowie Interview - French TV 1977 (480i; 8:20). We also get a Trailer (480i; 2:21). Disc Two and Three are merely DVD repeats of the same Blu-ray materials.

Another strange addition about this release is the lack of the soundtrack CD that was included with the British release. It's not clear why that happened, but it's just another ding against what should have been the most complete and authoritative version of this film. We do get the other non-disc supplements added to the sturdy cardboard box, which includes a reproduction of the press booklet, an illustrated booklet, mini-poster, and art cards. There is the 2008 Criterion version still available, but it's unlikely we'll see the soundtrack return unless you buy it from an overseas retailer.

The Bottom Line - 3/5
Lionsgate's The Man Who Fell to Earth isn't quite the celebration of David Bowie's career as we would have hoped. Sufering from a myriad of problems like poor video and sub-standard audio, the supplements are actually a step back in terms of what other countries are receiving. Add to all of this that the film is odd in the extreme, and you're left with a diminishing portion of the consumer population who will step up to buy this. If honoring a legend means spending more to make that happen - or not doing it based on the cost - I would think the latter would have to happen until the costs can be lowered. What we get here is a substandard transfer that makes it impossible for me to recommend. Perhaps a true 4K print of this lies out there on someone's hard drive, but until that one is released, I suggest you either rent the film or skip it entirely. There's too much good content out there now that begs for your attention, including Bowie movies than this one.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is rated R for nudity and has a runtime of 139 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

Comments

Alien Ink said…
Why the Kubo & the 2 Strings DVD pix?

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