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Directed by Nicholas Roeg, in 1976, The Man Who Fell to Earth, is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, who also authored The Hustler and The Color of Money. The screenplay was written by Paul Mayersberg and Walter Tevis and stars David Bowie, in his first starring role. The film depicts the story of an alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, played by Bowie, who comes to Earth in search of water to take back to his dying, home planet, where his wife and two children await his return.
While developing a method to transport the needed water, and raising money to build a spaceship to transport the water back to his home, he is introduced to television, gin and a young girl, Mary-Lou, played by Candy Clark. As he devolves deeper and deeper into these vices, he becomes less and less interested in returning to his planet. This series of events has been interpreted to be illustrative of the degenerative nature of American society.
This offering by Roeg was not initially received with universal praise as many movie reviewers of that time were somewhat underwhelmed by the disjointed storyline and visual presentation. However, as time passed the film started to develop an almost cult-like following.
Renowned American film critic, reviewer, historian, journalist, screenwriter and author Roger Ebert (1942-2013), was a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death. Two reviews of the movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, were written by Ebert one in July 1976 and one in July 2011.
Jennie Kermode is a full-time writer, part-time academic, human rights advocate, content director at Eye For Film, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Criticwire. She is also a Rotten Tomatoes registered Tomatometer critic. Kermode’s review was written in July 2008. Kermode is British, which seems appropriate since Roeg, the director, is also British. In his original review of 1976, Ebert allowed as how it required a courageous leap of one’s imagination to take the movie seriously (par. 1). In the 40 years since its initial release, a re-release has prompted a new look at this interesting movie. With either the benefit of perfect 20-20 hindsight or perhaps, time reveling the advanced state of Roeg’s intellect. Ebert, in his later review, speaks of the director, as attempting to make a film that is too challenging and abstract for the ‘Friday night mobs and requires too much thought’ (par 7). Meanwhile, Kermode, in her 2008 review, sees the film as full of dazzling images and striking individual scenes that will grab the viewer’s attention (par 4). In his original review, Ebert seems to be the most genuine and persuasive in that his review is not colored by the passing of time and, more importantly, the almost continuous analysis of the film and the development of a cult following concerning the movie. However, Ebert, in his July 2011 review, written on the 35th year anniversary of the original film’s release, seems to have fallen prey to the ‘me too’ syndrome by recognizing the cult following that the film had developed over the years. As a result, he appears to have tempered his comments about the performances, the direction and the plot.
All three of the reviews agreed that the film was, as Ebert said, in his first review, ‘filled with gaps of logic and continuity’ (par.1). In fact, Ebert goes on to explain, the movie is ‘so preposterous and posturing, that if it weren’t so solemn there’d be the temptation to laugh out loud’ (par. 1). Ebert goes on to say, ‘it’s like a bunch of tentative sketches for a more assured film that was never made’ (par. 1). Kermode felt that this was due to American censors editing out more than 21 minutes of the original film, principally dealing with scenes of a sexual nature. And, Ebert acknowledges that, perhaps, those missing minutes could have filled in many of the gaps in the plot and in the dialog between the principal characters and that, maybe, the connections and the structure worked better in Roeg’s original cut (par. 8).
Ebert, on the other hand, in his first review, indicates that Bowie’s performance is ‘laconic’, and flirts with catatonic (par. 6). An observation that Kermode seems to disagree with since she states that Bowie is perfectly cast as its hero, who alien though he may be, comes to represent something completely human (par.1). In his later review, Ebert, after having personally met David Bowie and being impressed by his poise and urbane charm, offers the observation that the movie is intriguing primarily because of both Bowie’s performance as the alien and Cindy Clark as the love interest (par. 4). Ebert further states that ‘Bowie, slender, elegant, remote, evokes this alien so successfully that one could say, without irony, this is a role he was born to play’ (par.1).
Roeg’s directorial effort in the film divided critics upon its initial release. In his original review, the best that Ebert had to say about the direction was that the development of the love relationship between the alien and the girl ‘was accomplished rather well’ (par. 6). In the 2011 review, Ebert, surprises by describing Roeg’s direction as being ‘very much a product of the 1970s, when idiosyncratic directors deliberately tried to make great films’ (par. 7). However, Kermode does not bother to mention Roeg’s direction, in this endeavor, at all. Both Ebert and Kermode, while discussing Roeg’s directorial efforts did, however, devote considerable time discussing his previous films, specifically, ‘Performance’ (1970), ‘Walkabout’ (1971) and ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973), in which his directorial achievements were apparently more initially successful than were those in this film. In fact, ‘Don’t Look Now’ was actually voted the best British film of all time (par.8).
All three of the reviews are somewhat in awe of the outstanding cinematography with its scenes of the vastness of the American southwest. Ebert, in his first review, states that the film’s cinematography is sensational, at times (par.8). Kermode stated that the film was stunningly photographed throughout (par. 4). Each of the reviews concedes that this is a totally different type of science fiction movie. Virtually devoid of flashy graphics and technology, the film focuses on character(s) and implied ideas, not on plot and special effects.
Ebert in his earlier review seems to offer the most telling and genuine insight into the actual substance of the film. This early review was made immediately after seeing the film for the first time and his thinking and reactions appear to be more genuine and not tempered by years of analysis of the film and the development of a cult-like following that may have influenced his and other reviewer’s later efforts. The striking differences between Ebert’s first and second reviews and that of Kermode lead to the unsettling conclusion that, these film critics were influenced by outside forces that dictated the results of their review efforts. A finding that leads to the conclusion that a review made immediately following a film’s release will provide a more genuine and sincere description of the film than one made at a later time.
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