The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
There’s a Starman waiting in the sky…but not for long, as the Blu-ray of David Bowie’s greatest screen role is out next Monday (4th April) – thanks to Optimum for the review disc.
The Man Who Fell To Earth
(Nicholas Roeg, GB/US, 1976)
America heightens Roeg’s unique sensibility into a full-on trip, at once euphoric and nightmarish. Unfortunately, that duality extends to quality: it’s both challenging and infuriating
When Time Out recently published its poll on the 100 Greatest British movies of all time, Nic Roeg had four films (including the overall winner, Don’t Look Now) – putting him amongst the likes of Hitchcock, Lean and Powell as Britain’s greatest filmmaker. But like so many British directors, he achieved his finest work overseas: Walkabout is as Australian as it is British, and both Don’t Look Now and Bad Timing benefit from being set in, respectively, Venice and Vienna.
Which leads to The Man Who Fell To Earth, a satire of American culture filmed with surreal intensity amidst the deserts of New Mexico, but which is shot through with Roeg’s uniquely British sensibility – a hippie-turned-hipster kicking out against artistic comformity through batshit-mental experimentation. And, clearly, science-fiction suits both Roeg’s hallucinatory visual sense (remember, as a cinematographer, he shot Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 9/11) and his fragmented editing. But what could probably have been a mainstream genre classic in the hands of a more accessible director becomes something else in Roeg’s – at once more challenging and less satisfying.
The central plot takes the pulp premise of a benign visitor influencing Earth culture and gleefully subverts it. Here, an alien (played by David Bowie, and curiously fashioned as a British expat called Thomas Jerome Newton) establishes a technology corporation in order to help send water to his drought-afflicted home planet… but instead he’s seduced and sidelined by the things already here: sex, booze and telly, eventually becoming a Howard Hughes-style recluse watching old movies on an endless row of monitors. It has the simplicity of fable and the cruel humour of satire, but Roeg pushes things until they burst.
Always a director who takes the difficult approach, he strips away cause-and-effect and fills the screen with bizarre ellipses and cross-cutting. It’s dynamic, allusive and potently cinematic – but also incredibly annoying. Roeg has never been shy about foisting his obsessions onto film, and this is a patchwork of vivid skyscapes (whose spectacular, ethereal compositions make John Ford look stolid) and even more vivid sex scenes, with the director getting carried away repeating the gonzo rough-and-tumble he perfected in Don’t Look Now. Trouble is, there’s none of the dramatic or emotional weight of the earlier film, with Roeg’s refusal to join the dots looking like wilful obscurity.
Many will dig Roeg’s perversity, but I can’t avoid the nagging doubt that there’s a simpler, better film beneath the pretension. With David Bowie’s titular alien wandering about looking bewildered and bewildering (more on him later…), the actual story rests on a handful of humans he meets. The range of these encounters alone offers complexity enough without the gimmicky style, especially as performed by a capable supporting cast of scene-stealing cult veterans. Buck Henry excels as Newton’s bemused partner, a shy patent lawyer turned into a decadent business leader. Candy Clark is hugely likeable as the bubbly but naive optimist who brings Newton to Earth with a bump (and a grind), and learns to regret it. And Rip Torn, playing the one man liberated by his contact with Newton, is a revelation to anybody who knows him best from his self-parodic post-Larry Sanders shouty phase. Torn’s arc from disillusioned, college-girl shagging wastrel to progressive disciple is the film’s most conventional but most emotionally satisfying strand.
With those performances neutered by Roeg’s fragmentary style, that leaves the sheer look of the thing to impress – even more so on the predictably dazzling new Blu-ray from Optimum’s Studio Canal range is dazzling. Roeg can conjure up set-pieces out of nothing (Newton’s angry knocking aside of a tray of cookies is particularly attention-grabbing) and his artfully asymmetric compositions are freeze-frame perfect. He’d have made a superb music promo director had he emerged a few years later…indeed, his fantasies of wetsuited aliens doing gymnastics so closely prefigure New Order’s later video for True Faith that it’s hard not to sing along.
Aptly, the film’s most miraculous visual effect is a pop star: David Bowie himself. As with Mick Jagger in Performance, Roeg knows how to use the camera to worship – and subvert – an icon. Bowie is otherworldly enough with his shock of immaculately styled red hair and the famous dilated pupil that makes his eyes appear to be different colours. Roeg’s finest work here involves stripping Bowie of those props – here, the hair is a wig and the eyes are contact lens, and the first reveal of Newton’s actual form is one of the weirdest shocks in sci-fi.
See also: Blu-ray review of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.