January 31, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: The Man Who Fell to Earth

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Written by Paul Mayersberg, from the original novel by Walter Tevis
Directed by Nicolas Roeg

In case I've never explained it before, the main reason I'm such a big science-fiction fan is because both my dad and my uncle were big science-fiction fans as well, two gentlemen who both started college during the bright and shiny days of the Kennedy administration, back when SF was arguably at its height both artistically and popularly. As a result, then, I grew up with a whole house full of SF titles from the '60s, hundreds of books stashed on back shelves in the den and down in the basement, all of which in one form or another had a heavy effect on me; after all, even when I wasn't actually reading one of the books in question, I would still often be getting mesmerized by the freaky psychedelic '60s covers of some of the crazier titles, implanting an image about those years in my head that I've never been able to completely shake, an immediate throwback to dusty suburban '70s basements whenever catching the work of Peter Max and the like.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

It's the primary mental image I have, in fact, whenever recalling the SF title The Man Who Fell to Earth; not the 1976 movie which I just finished watching for the first time in my life, but rather the original 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, a creepy psychedelic late-'60s edition of the book that I must've stared at a thousand times as a kid, and finally got around to actually reading back in college (almost twenty years ago itself, I hasten to add). And the reason I'm thinking about all of this today, of course, is because it brings up yet another issue that I'm often talking about here -- of the difference between novels and movies as unique artistic mediums, of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of both, and of the inherent dangers of trying to adapt a story from one format to the other. Because the fact is that the filmmakers simply don't do a very good job here of adapting the original novel; that in their rush to throw in the entire kitchen sink of '70s cinematic effects, they forget that a complex story is being told, one that requires a certain amount of traditional exposition and backstory to understand, no matter how much these countercultural filmmakers wanted to let their freak flag fly. It reminds me of an argument I'm often making here, made all the more important because of this film so embodying the message; that when it comes to the arts, story reigns above all else, and that messing with the story ultimately guarantees you an artistic failure no matter how spectacular all the other details are.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

This particular story, for example, is one of Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie, in his very first film role), a space alien whose homeworld is rapidly dying out because of a series of nuclear wars. Given that there is barely any water left on his planet, and that the entirety of his race now counts in the several hundred, they have decided that the best course of action is to simply evacuate as a species and quietly assimilate on Earth instead; Newton, the most physically strong of them all, is sent first in order to set up the logistics to make the exodus happen, using their highly advanced intelligence to establish a secretive high-tech Earth company that quickly grows to Google-style wealth and status. I won't go into too many more details, so as to save the majority of the storyline as a surprise to new readers; but let's say that the novel deals with such wide-ranging subjects as addictive substances (the first time that the alien Newton has ever come across such a thing), the paranoia and xenophobia of the '60s CIA, and of the enormous sense of responsibility that would undoubtedly come with being selected to be the savior of your entire species.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

All in all it's a fine story, a solid one from the middle of the genre's so-called "Camelot years," something that does what all good SF should do -- make smart predictions about the future based on the cultural detritus of our present, conveyed through a speculative plotline that veers in sometimes unexpected but always pleasurable and thought-provoking directions. Ah, but then it fell into the hands of experimental filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, a man still actually working in Hollywood but who has never had a single project since this that has been quite as big (which is saying quite a bit, given how obscure even this film is). And Roeg, if I can be frank, at least in this movie represents something that I've often talked about here in the past regarding '70s cinema; that in an age when the cutting-edge was suddenly mainstream, it was very difficult for a lot of people to tell the difference between a legitimate visionary and a hack who can mimic all the visionary moves, and therefore easy for a lot of con artists to wedge their way into countercultural cinema.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

That's the thought I kept having over and over while watching this, to tell you the truth: that I was watching a litany of "1970s camera shots" used in a row (the Altman roaming flattened lens, the Kubrick sudden zooms, the era's casual take on graphic nudity), none of them used for any inherent reason like the original filmmakers who first made them famous, but merely because this was the '70s and this is what you did in the '70s, is do sudden zooms and roam your flattened-lens camera all over the place and constantly cut to fully naked people rolling around in beds for no particular reason in a way so that you're constantly catching glimpses of their genitalia. It's always the flipside of being in a larger and more diverse artistic community, like so many filmmakers were in the '70s; that the same freedoms that allow legitimate geniuses to pull off legitimate masterpieces also let hucksters come in and pull off quickie copycats for lots of dough. And thus it is that Robert Altman is now a revered part of both film history and canon, while Nicolas Roeg's latest project was a dismal adaptation of the children's novel Puffball, receiving a collective 6 out of 10 from the customer base of the Internet Movie Database.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Ah, but there's an even bigger problem at work here; that in his zeal to embrace all these hacky '70s cinematic effects that he stole from better filmmakers, Roeg completely skips over the minimum amount of exposition needed to adequately explain what exactly the hell is actually going on. And again, you can see the '70s motivation behind such a decision -- you can almost see Roeg behind the camera while you're watching this, nodding and smoking a joint and muttering, "Yeah, see, the whole thing will be more trippy if we just throw the audience right into the middle of it, right? Who needs to explain the square backstory of this post-nuclear alien race in the middle of a drought, when we can just jump-cut to a shot of a space-alien family standing in the middle of a desert instead, then jump-cut back to Bowie looking all wistful and sh-t while Tangerine Dream plays in the background?"

The Man Who Fell to Earth

No matter how much artists want to push the envelope, there are certain inherent minimum rules when it comes to certain artistic mediums; for example, if you intend to tell a narrative story, it has to at least be something of which the audience can make sense. Abstract art is great, don't get me wrong, but not when you're trying to follow a traditional three-act structure; if you're trying to do that, like Roeg does here in The Man Who Fell to Earth, you simply need at least a certain minimal amount of backstory, exposition, character development and other things that come with a traditional three-act structure. I mean, thank God I had read the original novel before seeing this film, even if it had been twenty years previous and I had forgotten most of it; even that small amount of recall saved this movie from being an unwatchable mess, an opinion I suspect a whole lot of people back in 1976 had when the movie first came out, which is why it faded to obscurity so fast and has remained in the cult basement ever since. It's...it's not a good movie, I'll tell you that, although historically important for fans of '70s cinema gone wrong, awkward SF adaptations, and those looking to relive the magic which is a young, naked, androgynous David Bowie in all his pale glory. If you're one of the latter, you could do worse than to check this out some boring Saturday night; otherwise you can safely skip it altogether.

Out of 10:
Writing: 3.7
Acting: 7.4
Directing: 4.2
Cinematography: 7.8
Overall: 5.5

Next on my queue list: George Lucas' first film, the dark experimental 1971 sci-fi thriller THX 1138, a special edition of which was released just a few years ago.

Read even more about The Man Who Fell to Earth: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:48 AM, January 31, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |