The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth ★★★★½

David Bowie and Nic Roeg dream team on Walter Tevis’ scathing attack on everything from cold war paranoia to existential loneliness to the nihilistic acceptance that to be human is an ever downward spiral of addiction and deliver a wonderful cult-classic that gets more prescient as time goes on…

It’s hard to get past David Bowie’s astounding casting as an alien. No special or make up effects are required, it’s a perfect synchronisation of otherworldly looks, gravity-swallowing charisma and an air of lilting mystery and melancholia that may or may not have come from his rampant drug use at the time of shooting (depending on who’s apocryphal story you believe…) and he delivers an astonishingly aloof yet strangely heartfelt depiction of isolation and of a fallen angel whose good intentions have been warped by the very notions of humanity.

Yet the film is Nic Roeg’s masterpiece, a blistering kaleidoscopic collage of fractured time and story-telling, rich evocations of emotional angst and bizarre and off-kilter narrative juxtapositions, all designed to deliver a simple fable packed full of some biting attacks at modern societal norms and culture.

Following closely to Walter Tevis’ 1963 source novel, Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) is a humanoid alien who arrives on earth to find help for his war-ravaged home planet’s terrible drought. Securing several patents and accumulating unheard of wealth, he begins the task of constructing space ships with which to ferry the water back to his family and his people. Yet he becomes side-tracked by his ongoing friendship with waitress Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) with whom he first tastes so many humanisms, including television, sex and alcohol. Struggling with these ways, Newton sinks deeper into alcoholism and as his company grows exponentially, he begins to attract the attention of a shadowy cabal of government and big business who don’t take too kindly about the structure of their own little worlds being threatened by an outsider…

It’s a very simple parable, but both Tevis, Roeg and Bowie really get under the skin of the interactions and influences that would likely affect such a visitor. Eschewing any flash special effects work (mostly) or any traditional ‘alien’ character tropes, Bowie is depicted as physically weak, emotionally naive and easily manipulated either by accident or on purpose and it’s this slow sinking into humanity that proves to be so affecting and arresting, especially in the hands of such a master visualist as Roeg.

Significant time jumps occur with no notice, multiple narrative threads are intercut to show emotional resonance or thematic contrast, again with no introduction, and Roeg peppers the film with some truly stunning compositions that both play up to the alien nature of this visitor and of the world into which he is thrust. Yet Paul Mayersberg’s script also plays up the satire on capitalism as authoritarianism, the role of ‘business’ subjugating all that befall it, even the survival of an entire planet, something that today’s commercial landscape is eerily and terrifyingly reminiscent of.

While Bowie catches the attention and never lets go, others offer up sterling support – Clark as the good meaning Mary-Lou is a lovely foil, at once as innocent and blind to so much in the world as Newton, yet oddly complex in her own feelings towards him, especially as the film ages her significantly into its final act; and Rip Torn as the antithesis to Bowie, the deeply flawed and very alpha male who proves to be both an active agent in Newton’s downfall as well as being his real only ‘friend’, is the most Rip Torn he’s ever been and both chews through the script yet aligns himself fully to that strange near terminal nihilism that the film posits from its opening frames.

While we can only bemoan what might have been with the planned Bowie soundtrack (that fell away throughout production due to rights issues), musical supervisor and Mamma and Pappa big bear John Phillips’ astonishingly eclectic score and soundtrack that ranges from Holst’s The Planets to a Bing Crosby standard and a beautifully strange set of musical contributions from Phillips and Stomu Yamashta blends beautifully to Roeg’s own visual sensibilities and provides the perfect accompaniment.

It’s a beautiful amalgam of story, of tone, of subtext (and at times very obvious text) and of cinema as a true visual and aural medium. Roeg’s stylistic anachronisms are not for everyone and it may prove a little too challenging for some, but the film’s classic status is wholly justified amongst those who can attune themselves to his mesmerising vision. Beguiling, beautiful and truly otherworldly.

For more on the new 4K UHD release from Studiocanal, check out my full disc review at AVForums here:

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