Space Oddity: ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is Strictly a Vehicle for David Bowie
Nicolas Roeg’s mid-'70s sci-fi misfire about an alien (Bowie) trying to save his planet but falling prey to Earth’s temptations is self-indulgent garble with a haunting premise.
The Man Who Fell to EarthDirector: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark
Writer: Paul Mayersberg
US Release date: 2017-01-24
Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t just ignore plot, it sprints away from it at full speed. This wasn’t entirely by accident. Though one imagines that once David Bowie showed up on set with that electric orange-red shock of hair and dreamily aloof aura of wistful tragedy, that Roeg and crew might have just been mesmerized enough to chuck whatever screenplay they had and wing it. Of course, we know that that’s not the case. In fact, the lack of linear narrative was entirely purposeful. At least, that’s how Roeg’s screenwriter Paul Mayersberg explains it on one of the slew of interviews jammed into the film’s limited edition Blu-ray release. It wasn’t so much plot that they were getting away from as it was time.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those curious sci-fi projects that are occasionally indulged in by filmmakers who didn’t have any particular interest in the genre per se, but found it a useful springboard for their ideas. Bowie plays an alien who’s come to Earth looking for a water supply for his drought-ravaged planet. Calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton and looking like some kind of spectral hipster in his sunglasses and anorak, he’s first spotted wandering through a small New Mexico town, pawning a ring and drinking stagnant water as though it were the nectar of the gods.
Having found a planet abundant with water, Newton’s big challenge is getting it back home. As Newton arrives with knowledge of all kinds of advanced alien technology in his noggin, he’s able to quickly transform that information into key, groundbreaking patents. These allow him to establish a monolithic corporation that generates massive profits that he can use to build a craft that will get him back home with the water to save his people, particularly the wife and two children he left gasping for moisture in the white desert sands of their planet.
The flipside of Newton’s becoming an Earth billionaire, though, is that his alien innocence is soon corrupted. At first, he appears as a neophyte. Quiet and remote, he speaks only in short, stock phrases that he learned from remotely watching Earth’s TV broadcasts. His babe-in-the-woods outlook is further emphasized when he starts a relationship with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel maid with a “Gee, mister!” bumpkin take on life. Although Newton begins his Earth life as the internalized version of Mary-Lou’s outward filterless exuberance, it starts to take on a darker hue as the temptations of his adopted planet begin to sink their hooks into him.
This being the '70s, those temptations viewed so suspiciously by the film can mostly be broken down to television and capitalism. This isn’t much of a surprise, as Roeg was at the time an artist whose earlier films like Performance (1970) and Walkabout (1971) had evinced a skepticism of bourgeois societal norms at the least and the breadth of modern Western civilization at the broadest. The Man Who Fell to Earth was Roeg’s follow-up to 1973’s Don’t Look Now, a surprise hit of a grimy little Venice-set haunter that didn’t have much to say.
This time, Roeg was after bigger fish, not to mention a return to the kind of hothouse rock opera psychosexual psychedelia he and Donald Cammell had created with Performance. (Incidentally, it was Donald’s brother David who initially found the Walter Tevis source novel The Man Who Fell to Earth and developed the project before being cut out of it.) Newton’s passive, media-soaking alien-out-of-space is another of the decade’s TV-zombies who Paddy Chayefsky savaged in Network and Jerzy Kosinski lampooned in Being There (Newton being a clear precursor to the latter film’s TV savant Chauncey Gardiner).
More damning is Newton’s falling in with the business crowd. At first, he appears baffled as anybody by the machinations of big business when they’re explained to him by Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), the man who becomes his consigliere. But soon enough, Newton is tooling around in a specially equipped limousine, dressing in sharp suits, and drinking gin like a fish. As the temptations of his new earthly life accrue like barnacles to his smooth white sliver of a body, Newton feels pulled further and further away from the tragedy that sent him across space in the first place.
All of this takes a little piecing together, though. Roeg’s narrative is splintered into what Mayersberg calls “parallel timelines”. This is what most people would term more simply “confusing”. Farnsworth appears from time to time, as does priapic researcher Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), whose role is never fully justified except as another excuse for Roeg to shoot awkwardly transgressive sex scenes between Bryce and some barely-of-age female students.
We’ve hardly been introduced to Newton before he’s out of the desert and making deals for his multinational, Worldwide Enterprises, in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper -- shot by Roeg to be as looming and foreboding as anything in the New Mexico or alien deserts. The film isn’t just littered with flashbacks to Newton’s alien planet, it leaps and skitters around in time with little attempt to keep the audience clued-in. Later in the film, it becomes apparent that time is passing, what with the performers layering on the old-age makeup while Newton keeps his same youthful sharp-focus beauty.
But just as Newton becomes increasingly exhausted with life on Earth, so too the film exhausts its possibilities on all these narrative gambits that rarely lead anywhere. This wouldn’t have necessarily been a problem, had the raw material been more impactful. Unlike the films of Roeg’s that preceded it, for all their issues, both retained a fierce devotion to primal instincts. Performance had its Aleister Crowley-haunted house of madness, while Walkabout that overwhelming Outback landscape and Don’t Look Now the dark alleys and canals of Venice.
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The Man Who Fell to Earth spreads itself thin over so many plot strings and settings that few of them cohere. The New Mexico landscapes don’t exactly burn themselves into one’s consciousness, and most everything else is shot with a style-less and mildly satirical air of condescension all too common to films of the time, which thought they were making a point. Further hurting the film’s case for being any kind of avant-garde science-fiction classic, as it’s sometimes referred to these days, is the simple matter that Roeg’s direction is frequently slipshod, and bordering on the amateurish. For a filmmaker whose early work included second-unit work on Lawrence of Arabia, many of Roeg’s scenes here are surprisingly ramshackle in their framing and acting, most particularly the disruptively clunky and repetitive sex scenes. (That sequence in which Newton and Clark play rough in bed with a gun that shoots blanks is interminable.)
Claims to prescience aside (several of the interviews with principals included on the DVD make the claim that the film is relevant today because of the plot about the alien planet running out of water) the only reason that The Man Who Fell to Earth is remembered today is because of its star. Caught in the midst of his identity-shifting years, Bowie was still not long removed from the lost alien mythos that had helped catapult him to fame; he would record an album, Station to Station, right after filming, having been inspired to tell yet another alien story.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie is an inscrutable presence: dreamy and occasionally savage (when we finally see him in his alien skin, it’s a shock). But, and this is the mark of the true star, he makes you want to know more about him. The fact that little was ultimately forthcoming is the fault of the filmmakers, not the performer. He delivered what was expected. For that reason, the film earned its cult status; rewarded in this release with a deluxe package of goodies like an illustrated booklet, poster, original press notes, and still photographs.
Tevis’s concept of the lost alien roaming a strange Earth never quite abandoned Bowie. He later tried to make a never-realized musical around that idea with the novelist Michael Cunningham. Ultimately, he was able to revisit it in Lazarus, the musical theater project that hit stages in late 2015, not long before his death.
It makes sense that the story was one Bowie could never let go. Very possibly, like many artists, he never quite felt at home no matter where he was. Also very possibly it was that lack of rootedness which made him so perfect for a film that was itself in the end so far from perfect.