Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976)

Review #1,414

Director:  Nicolas Roeg
Cast:  David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark
Plot:  Thomas Jerome Newton is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet.  He starts a high technology company to get the billions of dollars he needs to build a return spacecraft, and meets Mary-Lou, a girl who falls in love with him.

Genre:  Drama / Sci-Fi
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin)
Runtime:  139min
Rating:  R21 for nudity and some sexual scenes
International Sales:  Studiocanal (Park Circus)

“They're so strange here, the trains.”

The ‘70s belonged to numerous filmmakers whose body of work during this period extolled the qualities of great cinema.  We remember the Scorseses and Coppolas of America, the dazzle of New German Cinema with Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders, and to name another, British social realism as led by the now 80-year old Ken Loach.  Fewer people, however, have championed the works of Nicolas Roeg (who is now 88 years of age and very much alive), surely one of the most formidable filmmakers to emerge from the UK.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, perhaps his most striking work of the ‘70s, is very much well-known for being the late David Bowie's acting vehicle, his first leading dramatic role in a performance of such singular naturalism that you'll be hard pressed to think of another actor who could have embodied it like fish to water. 

The strange, alluring qualities of Bowie’s face and body lend an otherworldly presence to his character, Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien visitor to Earth seeking to bring water back to his water-starved planet.  But first, he needs to trust some earthlings to build and develop a successful global technological brand (aptly named World Enterprises) that would rake in enough dough to fund his secret ‘water trip' back. 

Roeg’s style is familiar if you have seen his prior works like Walkabout (1971) or Don’t Look Now (1973), which are high on editing flourishes and the creative interplay of sound within and between scenes.  In The Man Who Fell to Earth, he ups his game and gives us an assault-of-the-senses treatment of the sci-fi drama. 

The opening sequence, which sees Newton landing on Earth, is a breathtaking yet highly economical prologue filled with strange sounds.  The film is also provocative with copious amounts of sex and nudity, but Roeg indulges in sharp juxtapositions to temper the titillations—the early scenes of Rip Torn’s character, a professor fooling around in the buff with his female student, are intercut with Newton’s fascination with a traditional Japanese stage performance with swooshing swords.

Bowie’s icy-cool display hides a tender love story between his character and Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), the latter trying to seek for his fullest affection, but doesn’t feel loved in return.  Newton tries to learn and embrace humanity within himself, but is constantly plagued by his unhealthy obsession with television, mirroring Man’s slavery to the medium, and pretty much everything else, like capitalism and consumerism. 

There’s a special moment in the film that sees a car rolling past a barren land.  The reverse shot—in a clever bit of time travel—sees a random family of centuries ago being confounded by a moving, futuristic ‘thing’.  One can’t help but feel that Newton is also a manifestation of that ‘thing’, as we look at him from the other side of the screen.  Well, Bowie was certainly way ahead of his time. 

Verdict:  David Bowie gives a remarkably natural performance as an alien visitor to Earth in this provocative, assault-of-the-senses sci-fi drama by Nicolas Roeg.


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