A staple on cable TV in the early ’80s and also one of the final statements of actor William Holden’s long and venerable career, the US/Australia coproduction The Earthling is a strange movie that feels like a conventional one. Slickly directed by Peter Collinson and boasting gorgeous location photography of Australian forests and mountains, The Earthling has such a literary quality that it seems as if it was extrapolated from a short story, although the narrative was written directly for the screen. Holden plays a dying man who returns to the Australian wilderness where he was raised so his life can end where it began. His plan hits a bump when he witnesses a car crash that leaves a 10-year-old boy orphaned. Instead of escorting the child back to civilization, Holden’s character yells at the frightened youth and tells him to fend for himself, until finally agreeing to become the boy’s guardian. Holden’s character then drags the kid along as he ventures deeper into a remote forest.
Some movies about inspirational relationships between old and young characters concern the teaching of life lessons. The Earthling has some of that stuff in its DNA, but it’s also about the teaching of death lessons. Had the filmmakers done a better job of defining their characters, the movie could have become a timeless meditation on using compassion to overcome the impermanence of human existence. Instead, The Earthling is something like a rough draft of that hypothetically fascinating movie.
The picture is murky right from the start. Patrick Foley (Holden) arrives in a small Australian town, where he briefly reconnects with a childhood friend named Christian (Alwyn Kurtis). This simple scene should have allowed the filmmakers to answer basic questions, such as why Patrick has an American accent and why he left home. Instead, the scene is a prickly argument about how Patrick doesn’t appreciate the people who love him, culminating with Christian’s accusation that Patrick’s plan to die alone is characteristically selfish. Like so many other things in The Earthling, this crucial scene kinda works and kinda doesn’t. The main thrust is clear, inasmuch as it’s impossible to misunderstand how the filmmakers want viewers to perceive the main character, and yet the details are so fuzzy that it’s hard to genuinely believe what’s happening.
And so it goes throughout The Earthling. Patrick and the orphan, Shawn (Ricky Schroder), bond simply because the story needs them to bond, not because the filmmakers present evidence of real human connection. It doesn't help that tow-headed Schroder is the quintessential Hollywood kid actor, exuding innocence as he cries glycerin tears. Still, the wreckage wrought by Holden’s years of offscreen hard living lend gravitas and poignancy to his characterization, meaning that he’s in a different—and superior—movie than the one occupied by his costar.
The Earthling: FUNKY