Make no mistake, Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is bizarre. It is the least science-fiction-y science fiction movie I’ve seen, the narrative and story are very loose and almost unnecessary and it’s at its most interesting when it’s at its most mundane. Yet, for the entire two and a half hour running time, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the film. Despite everything seeming ready to work against it, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is an incredibly fluid movie with beautiful cinematography and captivating performances.
The story revolves around Thomas Newton, an alien from some unnamed planet, who crashes on Earth and begins to build a successful business using the technology from his planet. Newton hires an attorney, Oliver Farnsworth, to work with him and together they eventually grow the company into a corporate titan under the name World Enterprises Corporation, making Newton rich. We eventually learn that Newton is getting money to build a space ship that can carry water back to his home planet, which has become an arid wasteland (or always was an arid wasteland). Newton hires Nathan Bryce, a scientist, to build the space ship and Bryce ultimately discovers Newton’s alien secret. Bryce reports Newton to the authorities where he is captured and tested. He eventually escapes, continues to live on Earth and puts out an album with messages he hopes people from his home planet will hear on the radio.
Like I said, bizarre. And while the description above may sound like a sci-fi movie, it never played like one. The shots of Newton on his home planet and in his true, alien form, take up maybe 15 minutes of the film (albeit 15 surreal, Barbarella-esque minutes). Instead the film lackadaisically focuses on Newton’s time on Earth and the relationships he forms with Mary Lou, the elevator operator he meets and eventually becomes his pseudo-wife, and with Bryce and on Newton’s ever growing addiction to alcohol and television, causing him to become somewhat of a recluse. Newton is portrayed by David Bowie, who, despite no prior feature film acting chops, is absolutely captivating in this picture and handles Newton like a pro. The comparison between the film’s character Thomas Newton and Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust can’t go unnoticed. Indeed, both are nearly-emaciated alien characters with flaming orange hair who suffer a fall from grace. And if you think drawing a line connecting the two characters is unwarranted, notice the prominence of music in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth.’ All genres and styles are used in the film and are mixed at the same level as dialogue, drawing our attention to it. It was clear to see this film as an artistic retelling of an artist’s (maybe Bowie’s, maybe not) rise to fame and the inevitable crash that follows. There are scenes in this film that could have easily been spliced into Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ or Alex Cox’s ‘Sid and Nancy.’ And maybe it was just me, but there was a scene that seemed like an almost an exact replica of a scene from the end of Orson Welles’s ‘Citizen Kane.’ Whether or not Roeg set out to tell a fall-from-grace story, it’s clear he had a vision for this film. Anthony Richmond’s cinematography is bold and lush in the outdoor, landscape shots. Graeme Clifford’s editing delivers a well paced film and David Bowie, Rip Torn and Candy Clark give fantastic performances. Even if the audience didn’t get the film, all the players clearly did and carried that weight for us.
‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ has been released through the Criterion Collection, which touts that additional scenes not originally seen during the American release have been put back in, seemingly to help the movie make a bit more sense. Having never seen the original run, I can’t comment on how much it helped from that version, but I can say that this version isn’t a clear cut story. However, I don’t really think the film was about the story. ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is more of an experience. I don’t know that I got the film enough to say it was a good movie, but it was definitely something I’m glad I watched and will probably feel myself compelled to watch again.