The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, out on Blu-ray January 24, is a strange, sometimes successful cross between a straight sci-fi and an art installation. The film attempts to incorporate pretty much everything you might expect from both forms of art, mixing perception, dreams, reality, and drug-induced hysteria into a plot that doesn’t so much arc as hover slowly to different ethereal planes.
What little plot there is concerns Thomas Newton (David Bowie), an alien from a drought-stricken planet who arrives on Earth to bring water home. He immediately acquires great wealth using the technology from his home planet, bringing him power and increased scrutiny. He falls in love (sort of) with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a maid and bellhop in a rundown hotel, who introduces him to booze, sex, and religion (and cookies). With the help of Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a womanizing scientist who guesses at Newton’s alienness, Newton hopes to construct a spaceship to return him home to his wife and family.
Of course, The Man Who Fell To Earth can’t do something as easy as tell a coherent story about a stranger in a strange land. Newton’s rise and fall is interspersed with a complexity of images, sounds, and scenes as he flashes back to (or dreams about or has foreshadowings of) his home planet and the family he left behind. His experience of Earth is likewise informed by media, as he absorbs everything from TV to music in a smorgasbord of sensory experience. Never having had alcohol before, he becomes an alcoholic; never having experienced human sex, he becomes a nymphomaniac. Yet he’s also curiously distant, unable to make real connections with those people around him.
The problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to be entirely certain what it’s trying to do, or why it’s trying to do it. Whole swathes of time are covered in single scene changes, while other scenes drag on and on, for no clear reason. While I never argue about a naked David Bowie, I could have done without seeing Rip Torn bed an ever-increasing number of ingenues. Nor is it clear what, if anything, these scenes are supposed to accomplish. The Man Who Fell To Earth is too linear to be surreal, but too scattered to tell a coherent story. It seems to be desperate to say something without having much of a clue about what it wants to say.
Bowie is the weirdly comforting center of all this, his beauty as ethereal and mesmerizing as ever. While he gave better performances in his acting career, he would never step into a role that suited him as closely as playing a gentle alien who just wants to go home. His moving performance attempts to articulate his experiences to human beings ill-equipped to understand them, and keeps the film from vanishing into its own personal black hole. Newton stretches out for contact that he’s not capable of, trying to express love or connection in a way that he can’t accomplish. There’s a sadness to Bowie’s performance that makes the viewer feel that we’re truly watching someone desperate to connect who doesn’t have the means or the language to do so.
This Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of The Man Who Fell To Earth is a gorgeous one, and offers the film in a beautiful 4K restoration, so that one may experience the Thin White Duke in all his multi-hued glory. The extras on the disc itself consist of new interviews with the costume designer May Routh and producer Michael Deeley, a multitude of archival interviews with Bowie, Candy Clark, Roeg, and writer Paul Mayersberg, and a “Lost Soundtracks” featurette, detailing the sound design of the film and what might have been. Although the interviews are interesting, they don’t entirely clarify the meaning behind the film and fail to reinforce it for anyone who might be unconvinced as a fan. The inserts in the pack are great, however, including a 72-page booklet, art cards, and a mini-poster with Bowie front and center (and which now adorns my wall).
The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those films that’s interesting as a curiosity and provocative for what it doesn’t quite succeed at doing. It’s an incoherent film, but it’s an interesting incoherent film, one that doesn’t entirely fail despite it’s incoherency. It aspires to the photographic beauty and depth of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the emotional resonance of The Day The Earth Stood Still, and seems to forget, at times, to just be a film.