Director: Nicholas Roeg
Script: Paul Mayersberg
Cast: David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn, Buck Henry
Nicholas Roeg’s deceptively elaborate tale of an extraterrestrial striving to bring water to his drought-inflicted homeworld is by far his most ponderous. A film as imaginative as it is indulgent, The Man Who Fell to Earth presents Roeg’s visual poetry at its most chronologically disarranged, randomly hurtling viewers through time as Newton rises to power through advanced patents and uses his vast wealth to build a space craft, with only brief (and low budget) glimpses of the family and planet he’s left behind.
David Bowie stars as the alien in question, travelling under the name Thomas Jerome Newton, whose efforts are thwarted by his vulnerability to human manipulation. As the alien visitor his emaciated features are more valuable than his acting ability; Newton is little more than the natural extension of the Ziggy Stardust stage persona.
Newton soon falls fouls of human vices (namely alcohol, sex and television) and the film’s lack of sympathetic character’s becomes apparent. Candy Clark, as the capricious maid who acts as Newton’s guide to humanity, overacts to unintentionally hilarious effect, while Rip Torn’s Dr Bryce is terribly underdeveloped.
But this is Roeg’s movie, and his trademark fractured narrative, used more effectively in the superior Walkabout, captures Newton’s frailty with a beauty that outshines his ambiguous and frustratingly disjointed nature. Those around Newton grey and shrivel while he remains intact, yet despite decades passing the film remains firmly placed in the 1970s. Much like John Huston’s Wiseblood, this is an adaptation which presumes viewers will be familiar with the work its based on; if you’ve not read Walter Tevis’s novel, prepare to spend much of the first hour in a state of confusion.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a movie that, had I seen it at a more impressionable age, would likely sit amongst my favourites. It hasn’t aged particularly well, with Roeg’s 70s pop stylings encompassing every high and low of seventies filmmaking, but Bowie’s presence is enough to ensure that the movie still remains a curiosity for music aficionados. It’s a bona fide cult film then, a glorious mess that’s simultaneously mesmerising and preposterous, and ultimately pretty damn poignant.
Open-minded cinephiles will find a lot to appreciate here; despite the movie’s abundant imperfections, 35 years on there’s been nothing even remotely like it.
Extras: The review copy I watched was barebones, but the upcoming Blu-ray retail release will include an interview with Nic Roeg, documentary feature ‘Watching the Alien’, clips from a Walter Tevis audio interview, new interviews with Tony Richmond, Paul Mayersberg and Candy Clark, and a theatrical trailer.
A digitally restored The Man Who Fell to Earth will be released on Blu-ray in the UK on March 4th by Optimum Releasing.