Director: Nicolas Roeg
Starring: David Bowie, Cindy Clark, Rip Torn, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey, Jackson D. Kane
Written by: Paul Mayersberg and (also novel) Walter Tevis
Running Time: 139 mins
Original Cert: X
Original UK Release: 18th March 1976
There is absolutely no way a film like The Man Who Fell To Earth could be made today. The money in the film business would not put an inch of cash towards a film that is so complicated, so visceral, so challenging, regardless of star or director. Which is why the 70s was a decade that film companies were not afraid to treat its audiences as adults and deliver films that were not conventional, didn’t play by the rules and even to the point of leaving the audience confused and bemused.
Thomas Jerome Newton is a mysterious man who appears from nowhere, with a head full of ideas and hand full of cash. He soon starts his own company and hopes to help with the energy problem. Thomas, however, is a humanoid alien who has come to earth to collect water for his own dying planet. Once the temptations of what the Earth has to offer captures him, he soon becomes the target of ruthless businessmen who want to take everything he owns and find out the truth about this man who has fallen to earth.
Nicolas Roeg is a director who isn’t afraid to push the boundaries. One of Britain’s finest, he had already played around with genre films like gangsters (Performance) and horror (the excellent Don’t Look Now), so it would seem a natural progression to go to science fiction. This was a time, before Star Wars, when sci-fi was more about thought and imagination than lazer beams and space battles, so it would seem a perfect area for Roeg to work in. A completely visual director, every shot is a treat for the eye, careful staged and shot, from the architecture to the decors, Roeg has thought about everything that will work for the big screen. The one downside is that it sometimes takes preference to narrative and occasionally slows the film down.
The story line is a mix of straight forward story telling and deep, philosophical musing plus commentary on society itself. Thomas becomes almost consumed with drink, television and sex, all trappings that are offered to him and he takes them with glee. At the same time, it has caused great thinkers to ponder the more hidden depths of the story while other just like it’s tale of a man lost on a different planet. A more cerebral version of ET.
The performances are all strong. Rip Torn as a professor fascinated with Thomas’s ideas and Buck Henry as Thomas’s manager are both very good. Cindy Clark, with her Southern American droll, is perfect as Mary Lou, the woman who seduces Thomas and falls in love with him.
At the heart of the film is David Bowie. Taking his first lead role in a film, he is remarkable and completely perfect. Fans may be disappointed he doesn’t sing (apart from a halfhearted version of Jerusalem) but his performance is natural and hugely understated. Looking incredibly gaunt and frail, with his bright orange hair, many believed that Bowie was more alien than human and here he proves it.
Some regard the film as self indulgent and far too flashy. Others are baffled by its complex plotting that is never fully explained while some find it just plain boring. No matter how you see this film, you cannot ignore that this is a work of art that, whether it works or not, is a mesmerizing experience thanks to Roeg’s always imaginative visuals and Bowie’s charismatic lead. A cult film that should be seen once in your lifetime, even if it isn’t your cup of tea (or you don’t like naked people rolling around beds).
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