The Man Who Fell to Earth is a powerful science fiction meditation. Featuring strong imagery, the film — screening from 24 June to 7 July at New York’s Film Forum — ultimately rewards the audience for slogging through long patches of disjointed narrative. It is ostensibly about an alien from another planet, stranded on earth, struggling to interact with humanity. Perhaps more effectively, it’s a show of arresting, hypnotic images.
Like so many aliens on earth before and since, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is trying to harness terrestrial technology in order to build a spacecraft to go home. He’s arrived in search of water for his drought-stricken planet, but the mission seems ill conceived, as he has no means to get back. Newton constantly wears a pained expression, as if always on the verge of fainting. We eventually find out that he is in actual physical agony, caused by the “human suit” he must wear over his alien form.
He does this to blend in as a human being, though everything about him is conspicuous, from his bright pink hair to the mismatched dilation of his pupils. His efforts to navigate the most conventional aspects of human existence, like making money or finding companionship, are as odd as his appearance. He takes out patents on extra-terrestrial technology and quickly builds a business empire that makes him a millionaire. He hires a lawyer, Oliver (Buck Henry), to take care of it, though his instructions sometimes seem confusing.
He also takes a lover almost randomly in Mary-Lou (Candy Clarke), a hotel elevator operator in a hotel. Mary-Lou is a little bit simple-minded and is immediately drawn to Newton. “You’re a freak, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. I like freaks,” she tells him. His freakiness, of course, is the point. Bowie — here looking something like a mix between Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke — imbues Newton with an evocative mix of loneliness and otherworldly detachment. When Mary-Lou introduces him to television, church, and alcohol, his responses illustrate the irrationality of these distractions we take as commonplace, and even reasonable.
This sort of cultural and political critique made The Man Who Fell to Earth of a piece with its era, using form as content to mount that critique. As Newton watches multiple TV sets at once, he’s collecting data, a process that mirrors the film’s own nonlinear narrative. It’s trying at times, and the surrealist images frequently hint at stories never filled in, or filled in very late. We see some fascinating flashbacks to Newton’s home planet, complete with his silver-skinned family. But we don’t learn that he looking for water until the third act, crucial-seeming plot information delivered as an aside in a conversation.
At one point Newton looks into a forest from a moving car and sees hundreds of years into the past, when a pioneer community was living there. If the film doesn’t explain his vision, we can feel his sense of loss. At another point, we see what seems a stand-alone abstraction, a scene suggesting the inherent violence of capitalism. Oliver is visited by two goons, apparently hired by the “government” to aid in a takeover of Newton’s World Enterprises Corporation, for reasons that are never quite clear. They enter Oliver’s high-rise apartment wearing motorcycle helmets, and proceed to throw him out the window, taking several tries to break through the glass with his body. Oliver is oddly complicit with the procedure and even apologizes to the goons when he doesn’t make it through in the first try.
Other scenes at least register thematically. A montage features clips from a love scene interspersed with snippets of Newton watching Japanese Noh theater, with two fighting Samurai in ornate costumes and makeup. The sounds of lovemaking overlay both sides of the interspersed footage, with the frame constantly cutting from the Samurai to the lovers, whose sex resembles a kind of roughhouse. This moment suggests Newton’s detached perspective of the human world, wherein sex and war mirror one another, as do an abstract theatre form and trendy shaky-cam imagery. He sees both sex and martial engagement as a kind of power struggle, mannered to the point of absurdity.
Another sex scene between Newton and Mary-Lou is intercut with one where he gives her a telescope. The telescope is a symbol for his anthropological gaze, and sex with him brings her only as close as if she was looking at him across the void of space. In yet another sex scene, things take a very wrong turn when Newton tries to reveal his true alien form to Mary-Lou, so she might see him without this buffer of abstraction.
The scene is presented in a very straightforward manner, and she recoils in a very non-abstract way. As vivid as this moment may be, it also emphasizes that most of The Man Who Fell to Earth feels more like a cinematic exercise than a film, though it is a frequently intriguing one.