In his performance as an extraterrestrial in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, opening at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday night, David Bowie is a special effect unto himself, an otherworldly force among the film’s other ’70s icons: Rip Torn, Buck Henry, and Candy Clark. But with his fey manner, fragile frame, pale skin, and shock of orange hair, Bowie is more than a human prop, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, his first feature film, is more than merely an opportunity for Bowie fans to ogle their favorite glam rocker. (See trailer below. Review continues after the jump.)
Based on Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel of the same name, The Man Who Fell to Earth casts Bowie as an alien in search of a means to replenish his dying planet’s water supply. He assumes the alias Thomas Jerome Newton, a British businessman with a briefcase full of lucrative patents, and establishes a corporation, World Enterprises, to save his planet (somehow). But he does not factor in the complexities of Earthlings, liquor and sex among them, and things get tough for Tommy fast.
During the early part of the film, Newton persistently refuses alcohol, always asking for water instead. Then he meets hotel maid Mary Lou (Clark), who offers him gin. He refuses. In the next scene, they are living together and she’s bringing him his favorite white wine. Such narrative leaps are common in the film, as when Dr. Bryce (Torn) abruptly changes careers, from a university chemistry professor with a taste for freshman female students to a World Enterprises employee with a hunch that his boss may be from out of planet.
Thomas Jerome Newton: magnate, teetotaler turned wine connoisseur, alien.
Throughout, Roeg obstructs the flow of the story with quick cuts, camera sweeps, zooms, and sudden bursts of music. (John Phillips provides a wide-ranging score that moves from atmospheric to funky while always adhering to the sonic identity of the mid-’70s.) It’s as if the filmmaker is trying to distract the audience from the story and forcing them to simply watch the movie.
After the collapse of World Enterprises, Newton finds himself in the hands of prodding scientists and unable to leave Earth. Roeg gives little explanation as to how Newton’s corporation fell apart; he opts instead for the abstract, as in the alien’s wordless reflection on the loved ones he left back home. In this way, Roeg creates a film steeped in memory that transcends the potentially distracting celebrity of its leading man, Bowie, who may be the first actor in the history of film for whom playing an alien wasn’t an otherworldly experience.
MBC will screen the 139-minute director’s cut of The Man Who Fell to Earth in HD every night at 8:50 p.m. from Friday to Wednesday. Visit mbcinema.com for more details.
For an extended review of The Man Who Fell to Earth, visit Han’s Morgenstern’s blog, Independent Ethos.