THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976, directed by Nicholas Roeg, 139 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC True to its title, The Man Who Fell To Earth begins with David Bowie’s alien Newton crashing down from the sky in his alien vessel. It isn’t just Newton, Nicholas Roeg’s experimental sci-fi epic also seems like an alien document sent from a far-off place, that place being the mid-1970s. Before Star Wars‘ arrival, mid-70s sci-fi was still heavily influenced by the mystical vagaries of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Roeg’s film, which brought rock phenomenon David Bowie to the big screen for the first time, ultimately found its cult audience outside of the mainstream, mainly through midnight screenings that continued for a good decade after its initial release. Roeg’s challenging, kaleidoscopic film sees the U.S. through an alien’s eyes and its willingness to defy expectations and obscure the narrative distractions of time and space has led some modern viewers (including Phawker’s illustrious editor/publisher) to call “bullshit” on Roeg’s vision. Love it or hate it, it certainly is a far cry from such current sci-fi such as Ryan Reynold’s Green Lantern film, a modern day equivalent that offers more easily digestible, crowd-pleasing intergalactic ride.
Walking through the New Mexico desert town in the film’s opening, Bowie’s Newton (and perhaps Englishman Roeg himself) looks at the U.S. as an unknowable foreign landscape. An abandoned inflatable “moon pillow” kid’s ride threatening to blow loose from its anchor symbolizes the barely-tethered carnival ride that is America. Newton arrives with a handful of industrial patents that make him obscenely wealthy almost instantly. Even though Newton compiles great wealth, it does not bring him happiness. Throughout the film, the camera pans across the faraway look in Newton’s eyes, which in turn dissolves into scenes of his alien family, stranded on a desert planet and waiting for Newton return with help. Over the course of the film, we learn that Newton left his planet looking for water to ease their apocalyptic drought. Newton’s plan is to use his vast wealth to bring them water, but along the way America distracts him and derails his plan.
From its set-up, it looks like TMWFTE is going to follow sci-fi orthodoxy. Perhaps like the similarly-themed The Day the Earth Stood Still, we’re expecting that the spaceman’s superior intellect is going to give him power over earth’s citizens. In the War of the Worlds it was unseen microbes that brought down the hostile invaders, but here it is the sickness of Western culture itself that ultimately hobbles Newton. Introduced to booze and TV by his earthly companion Mary-Lou (Ameican Graffiti‘s girlish Candy Clark), Newton sits idly in his chair, guzzling gin and watching four, five and later a wall of televisions. He builds an empire with his corporation World Enterprises, but the government (who has been surveilling Newton since his arrival) steps in just before his return voyage in order to keep him in custody, albeit in a gilded, luxurious cage.
As a rock star vehicle, TMWFTE perfectly utilizes the otherworldly charisma of David Bowie in his Starman prime. With his mismatched irises and his lean, insect-like body, there is something inscrutable about Bowie, yet something vulnerable and sad as well. Bowie was famously near exhaustion at this time in his career and that fragile quality suits Newton perfectly. There wouldn’t be another so perfectly-tailored pop star vehicle until Prince made Purple Rain eight years later.
What seems to frustrate modern viewers is Roeg’s bold strategy to have us witness this world through the reverie of Newton’s mind. Newton’s perception of time seems obscured by memory and throughout the film the passage of time is uncertain, with characters suddenly aging while Newton stays ageless. Occasionally he glimpses images that foreshadow events in the future in a way that makes time seem less than linear to Newton’s alien perception. Roeg’s love of surreal imagery is present in his earlier masterpieces, 1971’s Walkabout and 1973’s Don’t Look Now, and here the imagery continues to illustrate his themes of man and his alienation from his surroundings. Roeg’s previous film Don’t Look Now was also lauded for its surreal love scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. Here, Roeg presents three such sex scenes, one with Rip Torn’s character, a horny college professor and Newton’s future betrayer, carousing nude with a string of co-eds, and two between Newton and Mary-Lou, which feature guns and later the sagging body of the aged Mary Lou and the ageless Newton.
So much of our love of cinema is built around fantasies of power, the voyeuristic thrills of wealth and action. The Man Who Fell To Earth seems to promise such pleasures at its opening, but ultimately reveals that despite Newton’s otherworldly knowledge, America and Capitalism will swallow him whole just the same. Leaving this superman drunk and impotent at its closing, it is no surprise The Man Who Fell to Earth remains not a popular fantasy but a cult film, best recommended to those willing to see with the eyes of an outsider what lies behind our modern earthbound delusions.
A 35mm print of The Man Who Fell To Earth is playing through Thursday at the Ritz @ the Bourse.
BONUS CUT: THE MAKING OF THIS MOVIE REVIEW
JONATHAN VALANIA: Danno, so I went to see The Man Who Fell To Earth re-release on Friday, not having seen it since the early 80s, and MAN, I thought it was laughably bad — the porno-riffic sound design, the cheesy 70s game show theme soundtrack, the ludicrously bad old man/lady make up and the gaping holes in narrative logic. That’s not even factoring in the WTF extreme close-up of Candy Clark peeing her panties. Bowie still looks great in every scene, though. You still planning to write something for Phawker?
DAN BUSKIRK: [sends review] Take that, Mr. Laughably Bad, Porno-riific Cheesy gaping holes guy.
JONATHAN VALANIA: [reads review] Haha. Touché. Thanks. Sent from my iPhone.
DAN BUSKIRK: Thanks. I was hoping you’d argue with me. The age make-up is admittedly not great.
JONATHAN VALANIA: Jane, you ignorant slut. How’s that? OK, I do think you are still drinking the (by now stale) 70s Kool Aid on this, but your points are well taken. And as I read your review I started thinking that I was letting minor things — corny soundtrack, dated audio, ludicrous aging make-up, the peeing — overshadow the film’s virtues. I do think the film attempts to tackle big ideas — the toxicity of American life, the alienation of The Other, and writerly sci-fi as opposed to the purely CGI variety — that nobody bothers to ask in cinema anymore. And I think Bowie’s performance and on-screen magnetism remains impressive. But I stand by my assessment that the film has not aged well, and if they were going to bother re-releasing it, most of those distractions could be easily fixed: re-do the sound design, ditch the score and have Bowie (and maybe Eno) create a new one, and edit it in a way that gives the narrative some clarity without sacrificing that trademark 70s era stoner ambiguity, which I am a sucker for. I think it is telling that Bowie had nothing to do with promoting this re-release.
DAN BUSKIRK: There was a version that originally played the U.S theatrically that was twenty minutes shorter, but people complained about it being less comprehensible. Have you seen other Roeg films, PERFORMANCE, WALKABOUT or DON’T LOOK NOW? The more stuff of his you see, the more you get used to his odd, tangential cutting style.
JONATHAN VALANIA: I have seen PERFORMANCE, and I think that ‘tangential cutting style’ serves him very well in the first third of the film but eventually it grows tedious and obscures the pivot points of the plot, to the extent there is one.
DAN BUSKIRK: I have a laserdisc of his even more spurious JUST A GIGOLO, directed by David Hemmings (star of BLOW-UP, perhaps another Valania “bullshit” call?) Bowie plays a WW1 vet returning to Weimer era Gernamy to work in a brothel. It was Marlene Dietrich’s last role but Bowie and her were never together, despite sharing two scenes. Still not on DVD.
JONATHAN VALANIA: Interesting you should mention BLOW UP, just watched that too for the first time since the mid 80s. I was heavily into my retro 60s garage rock guy phase then, so I really worshiped that movie. I fucking loved Hemmings, the look, the hair, the clothes, the birds, the cars, the attitude, the Yardbirds, the trippy mod-ness of it all. This time around, still enjoyed all that stuff, but thought Hemmings was more of a jerk than I remembered him being, which apparently was Antonioni’s intention. And at one point I mockingly shouted at the screen: “Oh, he’s SO oblique!” (which my girlfriend thought was quite funny, I’ll have you know). Still, I think it holds up pretty well, and seems much more modern than MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. And hands down, BLOW UP has better sex scenes. The ones in the TMWFTE kinda made me cringe. Still love the clown/mime troupe bit at the end of BLOW UP. I always took them to be symbolic of the contagion of the psychedelic 60s, but this time I found the very ending to be more baffling than I remembered it being. And I mean that in a good way.