“Well I’m not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity.”
‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1976, is a British science fiction movie set mainly in New Mexico. David Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a desert planet who has crashed to Earth. In order to make money to finance a return journey, he enlists the help of a lawyer, Oliver Farnsworth, played by Buck Henry, with whom he sets up a technology company. In the meantime he starts a relationship with Mary-Lou, played by Candy Clark, who introduces him to gin and television which distracts him from his goal. Ultimately, the government, who have been monitoring him since his arrival, incarcerate and experiment on him, slowly bringing his dream of a return to his planet to an end. As with Roeg’s previous movies, particularly ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Walkabout’, one of the more distinctive things about this film is the look. Roeg is a master at using colour and camera movements to unsettle and alienate, whilst his approach to flashbacks and fantasy sequences are also done in such a way as to disconcert the viewer. The whole film is about alienation, from the elliptical narrative to Bowie’s unusual and charismatic performance. The myths that this film have given rise to are indelibly tied to Bowie, to his adoption of a sequence of different characters in his musical career, and his fragile state of physical and mental health at the time the film was made. This knowledge certainly adds an edge to Roeg’s film, but it also may detract from the power of Bowie’s performance and the clear thought behind it. In short, it’s a hypnotic movie with a unique central performance that is slightly over-long. I’m also such a huge fan of ‘Don’t Look Now’, which I think is one of the greatest films ever made, I find it difficult to judge this with comparison with Roeg’s earlier and more consistent film.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it seems that a large number of auteur directors often end up making a distinctive science fiction film: Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris‘ and Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ spring to mind (whilst ‘8 ½’ clearly isn’t a science fiction film per se, the film-within-a-film is, and the scenes based on the set of the internal movie are reminiscent of Roeg’s). I’d watch with ‘8 ½’, partly because it’s so much fun, and partly because it gives an interesting layer to the filmmaking process behind ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’.