Director: Nicolas Roeg
Stars: David Bowie (Thomas Newton), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth) Bernie Casey (Peters)
Genre: Science Fiction
There are better Nicolas Roeg films than The Man Who Fell To Earth. Chiefly Walkabout and Don’t Look Now stand out as far more cohesive, artistically satisfying pieces of work, while the intelligentsia would also highlight his much celebrated collaboration with Donald Cammell on Performance*. But it’s this lumpen, messy, unruly meditation on alienation that draws me back most often. A pop art blur that stands woozy and garish in the cinematic landscape, like a partygoer staggering home after far too much fun.
That sense of excess is, of course, part of the story, and in many ways The Man Who Fell To Earth feels like a requiem for a lot of things. Like a lot of independent cinema made or set in America in the 70’s, it feels like the hangover after the riotous exuberance of the 60’s. Yet I love films from this period because they still feel overstuffed with ideas and a fierce desire to provide distinctive experiences.
Roeg’s film is a fine example of this strangely schizophrenic collision of tone and content. David Bowie plays the enigmatic Thomas Newton, a solitary figure with a tremendous shock of red hair who appears out of nowhere and quickly establishes himself as a major figure in the business world. Years blur by and his company World Enterprises takes credit for countless innovations. But all the while Newton courts curiosity for his eccentricities and intense privacy – the man has a secret; he’s no man at all.
Having been recently bewitched by Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing Under The Skin (with which Roeg’s film shares some key DNA), I felt moved to revisit The Man Who Fell To Earth, and found my enjoyment of it has grown more than ever. Years ago it caught my eye for its bold visual motifs (I love the image of Bowie in a hooded coat stumbling down a hillside of shingle) but it has endured as a beguiling entity, as fascinating as its lead character. As much for what works as what feels lamentably misguided.
So what’s there to love? Plenty of things. Firstly, the casting of David Bowie here is inspired. Pop icon, chameleon, super-cool semi-androgynous enigma… His very unearthly celebrity makes him an alien among us, someone who could walk in a crowd yet seem entirely separate from it. His Newton plays on this, posing as an English gentleman abroad, and while Bowie’s performance isn’t amateurish, it is curiously quiet, timid even. He feels like an interloper; a pop star who got lost and ended up trapped inside a movie. Roeg’s frequent handheld approach gives several scenes the appearance of a documentary. One might almost wonder whether Roeg had cast Bowie as an alien playing at being human only to find out that he actually was one. The camera seems fascinated by his every gesture or decision, in case something extraordinary might happen at any minute.
Roeg bends the conventions of the science fiction film out of shape, creating something more amorphous and puzzling. This was a year before Star Wars and the genre was far from healthy. While 2001: A Space Odyssey had given it some much-needed credibility, that phenomenon was nearly a decade past and sci-fi filmmaking had regressed to the campy, B-movie margins. The Man Who Fell To Earth appeared the same year as Logan’s Run for instance. The gap between them is vast.
Roeg keeps the more fantastic elements at the fringes of the story; we rarely see spaceships or martians, there are no space rays or the like. Instead Roeg blends the story’s fantastic elements with the humdrum and familiar; scenes in crappy motel rooms, bland discussions of business practicalities, Buck Henry’s ugly corrective lenses.
But where the film really excels is in its outsider’s perspective on the frailties we all risk getting swallowed by; vices like apathy and gluttony, the ways in which we draw ourselves to distraction and, toward the end, how inhumane humanity can be. Newton tries his best not to interact with the world, and when it fails him (after he fails himself) he accepts this disappointment with a kind of world-weary inevitability that is genuinely touching.
At the film’s end he knows he is lost, but he’s not bitter; it’s a battle he was never equipped for, it seems. Watch the film again and you can see a sadness in Newton from almost the start. Not just born of homesickness, but also out of futility. This fatalism brings us back to the sense of post-coital exhaustion. The end of a cultural fevered dream.
But the things that don’t work also set The Man Who Fell To Earth out as a particularly fascinating film. The weird, ungainly pacing suggests a far more elaborate plot that’s being awkwardly jammed into a feature film. The movie sprawls to 133 minutes, yet still feels curiously like the cliff notes of something larger, more meditative. There’s a present fad of adapting movies into TV shows (Fargo, From Dusk Til Dawn). I can think of few films more suitable for this kind of expansion than The Man Who Fell To Earth. It’s a story that feels stiltedly condensed here, creating a movie that’s sometimes overstuffed and feels preoccupied. Roeg shuffles story pieces uneasily, as though struggling to keep everything in.
Performances are far from consistent, not least for the conspicuous attempts at artificial aging. And while the likes of Buck Henry and Rip Torn ground the film, Candy Clark’s Mary-Lou is spectacularly irritating; a carnival grotesque whose shrill voice and overbearing immaturity occasionally mires the whole experience.
Yet there are indelible ideas and images in The Man Who Fell To Earth that make it a joy despite it’s failings. Roeg’s impressionistic style leads to some delightfully imaginative visual collisions. At it’s best this gives the film as a whole the same feel as the scene in which Newton watches a great bank of televisions simultaneously. Like someone incessantly switching channels, Roeg presents us snapshots of the world seen through a movie camera; a planet of complexities and conundrums too vast in their number to take in. The film’s soundtrack buzzes with pop songs and country music received intermittently like radio signals. It’s impossible to see and hear everything at once. Trying to do so invites madness and failure, and to evoke such dizzying ambition required a restless talent like Roeg’s.
This is an expansive, rambling, occasionally maddening film. But I love that it dares to be more than it possibly can be, for teetering on the brink of bloat, and especially for Bowie’s acute portrayal of how beautifully overwhelming the world is.
*Something which, try as I might, I simply can’t understand.