Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth is the perfect starring vehicle for David Bowie. The film has recently undergone a restoration in 4K to be released in cinemas as part of its 40th anniversary; but while the film may have some decades on it, the cautionary message remains just as relevant. His first starring role, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton suits Bowie in multiple fashions; mainly as it fits into part of his well-practiced “alien” persona, as well as the way that he slipped into several personalities in his time performing as a musician (the film was shot during his “Thin White Duke” stage). Roeg, having directed a famous rock star 6 years before in his film Performance (1970), expertly uses Bowie to maximum effect in his bizarre adaptation of the sci-fi novel written by Walter Tevis.
However while The Man Who Fell To Earth certainly puts Bowie’s star persona to use, it never resorts to leaning on it for the sake of accessibility. This isn’t the Starman we know and love, Thomas Jerome Newton is more alien than Bowie ever was – and in a particularly disturbing sequence later in the film, when we see Newton’s true form, we are shown this all too well. However Bowie is perfect as a human who doesn’t quite fit in – his mismatching eyes, shockingly pale skin and thin form appearing as an imperfect disguise for his true alien self.
The film begins with Newton’s landing on Earth, the strange and seemingly innocent creature in human skin on a mission to save his distant desert planet by accumulating wealth, then building a spaceship in order to send back water – a noble enough cause. The film appears to have a fairly simple trajectory at this point, which then veers wildly off course as Mary Lou, a lonely woman who works as a maid in a hotel Newton visits in New Mexico, introduces him to the Earthly pleasures of television, sex and alcohol (the sex scenes were initially banned in the US). As such, wealth no longer just becomes a necessary step in Newton’s noble quest, but becomes an aspiration in itself, as well as a symbol of power. After this point the film becomes an increasingly disorientating experience, with the lines between memory, hallucination and reality slowly blurring until they are indistinguishable; the narrative interrupted by bizarre images crosscut or crossfaded over the scene at any given time.
However these earthly pleasures of man don’t actually appear to be pleasurable, with the aforementioned hallucinatory sequences becoming detached and nightmarish in nature, alcohol supposedly causing a vivid hallucinogenic reaction in Newton. The more he consumes, the less mobile he becomes – and the further away he gets from accomplishing his goal. Disabled by his alcoholism, time seems to bend around Newton as he quite literally stays still in every possible sense of the word. The other main characters that populate the film age around him, environments crumble, and the days become a blur.
With all this, The Man Who Fell To Earth can appear as depressing, weird, and fairly opaque in nature; events moving into a completely new realm of strange before the audience has time to adjust. There is a lot to decipher in Roeg’s cautionary tale of consumption, which may make it appear off-putting to most – Stomu Yamash’ta and John Philips’ bizarrely deployed soundtrack not helping in this matter. Loud music that seems to mismatch the images on the screen starts suddenly at differing points in order to shock or discomfort, instead of introduce any kind of harmony to the film, despite the use of pop songs by bands such as Steely Dan.
The film appears as a montage or collection of things that we should enjoy, but slowly contorts these things into a nightmarish form that instead brings disgust and bewilderment. While the long running time and slow pace can be fairly exhausting, it is not forgettable or wasted time spent in the cinema. A twisted view on what it means to be a modern man, The Man Who Fell To Earth is as likely to bewilder and disturb as it is to entertain and enthrall.
Dir: Nicholas Roeg
Scr: Paul Mayersberg
Cast: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey
Prd: Michael Deeley, Barry Spikings
DOP: Anthony B. Richmond
Music: John Philips & Stromu Yamash’ta
Year: 1976, remastered 2016
Runtime: 138 minutes
The Man Who Fell To Earth is out in UK cinemas and the Soundtrack is available for the first time from the 9th Sept, DVD and Blu-ray is out 24th October.