The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Paul Mayersberg (screenplay) and Walter Tevis (novel)
Cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond
Starring David Bowie, Candy Clark and Rip Torn
More so than Nicolas Roeg’s previous work with Mick Jagger, The Man Who Fell To Earth exploits the self-conscious casting of a celebrity rock star to brilliant effect, and Bowie’s attempt to blend in as an actor in this film mirrors his character’s attempt to blend in as a human being on planet Earth. Bowie’s alien persona is also a natural fit for his role here, and he plays himself brilliantly. His makeup, costumes, and shock of red hair never distract from his intensely compelling curiosity as he confidently but awkwardly experiences the newness of human life. As with “Performance”, The Man Who Fell to Earth has a loosely structured narrative in which the protagonist either plays a passive role or has a somewhat ambiguous goal (his overall goal, of course, is to bring water home to his family, but how he plans to get there is somewhat obscure). The tone of the film and the brilliant directing create a mood of tension throughout, and Bowie’s guarded performance leaves us constantly wondering what he’ll do and what he’s capable of. He is extremely polite, sometimes anxious, and very straightforward and businesslike but with a hint of hidden soul. He watches dozens of television screens on various channels simultaneously, and relishes the taste of water, a precious commodity on his home planet. His love for television in the face of his wife’s desperate nagging parodies domestic dysfunction as well as anything out of “3rd Rock From The Sun”.
The soundtrack, as in “Performance”, is extremely diverse compared to most films. It sounds at times like something from Bowie’s contemporaneous work (Low), but also encorporates Japanese Kabuki theater music and even a jazzy theme song that seems to foreshadow Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks. Montage is again used in unconventional and non-narrative ways, and various characters offer brief voice-over narrations at seemingly arbitrary points in the narrative in order to offer their perspective on events. Notably, Thomas Jerome Newman (Bowie’s character), is denied any such commentary. On the other hand, several montage scenes do take us into Mr. Newman’s dreams and memories of his home planet while diegetic sounds from his current planet escalate into a deafening cacophony.
The sex is frank and full-frontal, but decidedly unsexy and androgynous. At one point, their lovemaking is intercut with images of them standing together expressionless in an unknown environment and context. The overt science fiction tropes are kept to a minimum, save for a futuristic pyramid-shaped music player that reads sound from shiny metal spheres inserted into the top. In fact, the film’s allegorical critique of alienation and capitalism is so thorough and complete that the movie almost avoids the sci-fi genre altogether. Bowie himself is a real-life alien, with or without the makeup, and the final hat tilt in the closing shot is one of the most singular gestures I’ve seen on film. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a culmination of Roeg’s prior work and uses his style to create a psychologically disturbing yet poignant and heartfelt portrait of an enigmatic man who also happens to be an alien.