The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) starring David Bowie
What’s it about?
David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth because his own planet is dying due to drought. Posing as an eccentric entrepreneur named Thomas Jerome Newton, he meets with lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and shows him some ideas. Farnsworth tells Newton that he has no less than nine patents, so the latter offers him a business proposition: if he secures him the money to start a corporation named World Enterprises then he will get a high ranking position on its board of directors. Farnsworth agrees and the company becomes a success story almost overnight.
Later, Newton goes on a business trip to a town at the New Mexico border. While he is there, after passing out in a hotel lift, he is nursed back to health by an alcoholic concierge named Mary Lou (Candy Clark). They soon fall in love. Around this time, Newton also recruits a womanising professor named Bryce (Rip Torn) to help work on a space programme he is developing - and the two become friends. However, others in the company don’t agree with the direction in which it is heading and start to take some less-than-scrupulous actions to change things.
Newton starts to become disillusioned with the Earth and picks up Mary Lou’s alcohol habit.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
It’s one of the best-known of a number of critically-acclaimed films to have been directed by erstwhile cinematographer Nicolas Roeg along with Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Witches (1990).
It was David Bowie’s first starring role in a feature-length motion picture and has remained one of his most well-regarded. While Bowie’s strongest talents lay in singing and songwriting rather than acting he could turn in a memorable performance when he was cast in the right role, as he was here.
How does it hold up?
The Man Who Fell To Earth is proof that science fiction films don’t always need special effects; they need conceptual imagination. That imagination can often be filled in by inspiring the mind of the viewer themselves. The innovative approach of director Nicolas Roeg achieves just that. While what he creates is a work of art it’s one that knows that the mind of the viewer is an open canvas.
There are a lot of switches back and forth in space and time throughout the film. While these are generally left open to interpretation on the mind of the viewer, some (such as transitions to scenes involving the alien with his family back on his own planet) seem to be conventional back story-filling flashbacks. However, others seem to allude to his character having an ability to not only perceive events widely through time and space but also transmit his own presence through the same. There is one scene where he sees back in time to some white settlers in a field at the roadside, and they, in turn, gaze as his car drifts past. There is another scene where Newton watches a piece of Kabuki theatre as Bryce has kinky sex sessions with his students. The intercutting becomes more ferocious as the sex becomes more intense. Perhaps Newton/the alien has some psychic link with Bryce? Bryce hallucinates meeting Newton during a night-time scene prior to meeting him in reality. Has Newton projected his consciousness into his life?
How an alien sees the Earth
While this alien clearly has perceptive abilities well beyond those of the humans surrounding him - this also includes the ability to watch multiple televisions at once - he, paradoxically, possesses an almost childlike naivety and sense of wonder. Colours are bright and super-saturated. As he explores the world around him, images jump out and loom large: a colourfully decorated fete tent bouncing around in the wind, a white horse running by the side of the road. His home has rooms decorated with the most exotic and eclectic backdrops imaginable; as he moves from one to another it feels that he is travelling the world in mere footsteps.
As he becomes more awash in alcohol and perturbed by the behaviour of those within his corporation (their prejudices related to his alien nature, along with their decidedly mafia-like business practices) the visual beauty becomes a counterpoint to the sheer sadness of his tale. He’s a man who knows so much more than those around them but paradoxically lacks the experience in dealing with those who have smaller minds than his own. He may be the symbol of a bright, innovative future, but so few (beyond the frontier settlers who glimpse him from the past, and the idealistic scientist Bryce) have the ability to see him for who he is. Hence, they drag him down.
Bowie’s bizarre persona fits the idea of an alien in human form like a glove; with his mop of rust-coloured hair, mismatched blue contacts and habit of wearing trench coats and wide-brimmed hats whatever the weather, he looks every inch like what a visiting alien would hastily assemble as a disguise for himself while on Earth. Candy Clark is also likeable as Mary Lou despite the faults in her character (in particular the alcoholism she passes onto Newton) which seem to come more out of a lack of awareness both of herself and her alien lover rather than having her heart in the wrong place. Indeed, in many ways she is ultimately more open-minded than Newton’s more wily and ruthless business cohorts; when he finally reveals his alien nature to her, she remains by his side despite her initial shock.
It’s a wonderful film - and all the more interesting to see so soon after Bowie’s sad death at the age of 69.
Runtime: 139 mins
Dir: Nicolas Roeg
Script: Paul Mayersberg, from a novel by Walter Tevis
Starring: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey