FILM REVIEW: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, 1976)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Starring David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn, Buck Henry

Philip Ridley once said that “watching a film has always been both an experience and a process; we experience it first and we spend the rest of our lives processing it.” Each of us can cite examples of films which were memorable experiences to watch and which have dogged our imaginations since that fateful first viewing. Sometimes the film is so perfect we embrace it and analyse it ad infinitum; sometimes it is so hideous that we are repulsed and vow to avoid that area forever. And sometimes, as with The Man Who Fell to Earth, the experience is just so strange that we don’t know what to think.The Man Who Fell to Earth is a notable meeting point in many interesting careers. It was maverick director Nicolas Roeg’s follow-up to Don’t Look Now, a flawed but fascinating Gothic tale of grief and the supernatural. It was produced by Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley, who would later win Oscars for their work on The Deer Hunter. And it marked David Bowie’s first foray into film, having failed to get an adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four off the ground.

More than any of that, it is also one of the strangest, oddest and most baffling films ever to have come out of Britain – quite something for the country which gave us The Wicker Man. Roeg’s experimentation with colour, composition and narrative structure takes a relatively straightforward science fiction story and distorts it ruthlessly, creating something which is incoherent and indulgent, but utterly memorable.Based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth is something of a bridge between the drug-induced hippie culture of the late-1960s and the post-Altamont paranoia of the 1970s. Its visual style is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni, particularly The Passenger and Zabriskie Point. Both films rely on long slow scenes with lengthy takes, and the camera is as much in love with the landscape as it is with the characters dotted around it.

There are also hints of Andrei Tarkovsky in Roeg’s work. Like The Mirror, The Man Who Fell to Earth plays out like a stream of consciousness with no particular interest in narrative. And as with Solaris, part of what story there is includes a man wanting to rejoin his family on a distant planet. We watch David Bowie’s mind conjure up images of a strange desert world, and are not sure whether we are seeing what is real or illusion, the future or the past.One of the distinctive features of The Man Who Fell to Earth is its complete disregard for the passage time. Characters physically age, but there is no clue as to how much they age by or how long it has taken Bowie to accumulate all his wealth and power. Roeg deliberately sought to remove the “crutch of time” from his audience, a decision which makes the film deeply incoherent. Couple that with the generally slow pace of the film, which runs to two-and-a-half hours when fully uncut, and you would expect the whole project to collapse into a soupy heap.

This is avoided by Roeg’s striking visuals which pull us into the world of the film and keep us totally engrossed (if freaked out) by what is going on. Like Ken Russell before him and David Lynch shortly after, Roeg puts images on screen which are so horrifically beautiful that we can be fixated by what is happening even if we have no idea what is going on. The scenes of Bowie’s home planet, inhabited by hairless creatures with air packs and yellow eyes, is up there with the acid queen sequence in Tommy.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a deeply druggy film, right down to Bowie’s entrance which resembles footage of Syd Barrett (allegedly) tripping on mushrooms in a quarry. This psychedelic feel spilt over into the production, since the film was made at the height of Bowie’s cocaine addiction. Perhaps the only way to rationally understand the film is to liken it to an acid trip or lengthy state of drunkenness, in which little makes sense and one has little control over events playing out before you.

It’s therefore hard to know whether the film’s indulges with both time and content are deliberately intended to reinforce this effect or are simply a case of poor discipline. By and large Roeg is well-behaved behind the camera, choosing his angles for their propriety rather than to show off his skills as an editor. His use of zooms, while repetitive, does enhance the film, mimicking our wandering minds that focus on something on a whim for no good reason. That said, we do have to put up with the gratuitous shot of Candy Clark urinating in fear, in which the camera focuses tight on her underwear in a really uncomfortable manner.Being an X certificate film, The Man Who Fell to Earth also has its fair share of nudity and graphic sex. We get full frontal scenes of Clark and Bowie, and scenes of Clark and Rip Torn making love in a manner which resembles a mugging. Although none of these scenes are exploitative, they are far removed from the famously delicate love scene in Don’t Look Now. We also have to put up with a parade of teenagers staring at Torn’s genitals and remarking: “you don’t look anything like my father”.

But beneath all its incoherence and excess, The Man Who Fell to Earth is an insightful and powerful film about the destructive effects of wealth and the lifestyle that goes with it. Beyond the obvious irony of the story (a man sent to find water ends up becoming a drunk), the film demonstrates how someone of seemingly noble intentions can end up as a bankrupt vessel of decay. Thomas Jerome Newton begins with no emotions and a singular focus on his mission, setting up World Enterprises with the express purpose of helping his planet. But the longer he stays on Earth, the more Newton absorbs the lifestyle and values of our planet until he loses all desire to help anyone.Just as Charles Foster Kane was based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, so there are shades of real life enigmas in Bowie’s performance. The most obvious comparison, aside from Hearst, would be with Howard Hughes. Both individuals are obsessive by nature, with the ability to conjure up wealth and power out of nothing. Like Hughes, Newton entertains the possibility of travel by seemingly unrealistic means. And like Hughes, Newton becomes a recluse who is both tormented and fascinated by film and television. Think of Newton as Kane’s mentally deranged, druggy half-brother – and even then, you’re only halfway there.

Much has been written about Bowie’s performance, which is the best of his erratic acting career. Bowie literally inhabits Newton to the extent that he lived the lifestyle of the character long after the film had wrapped. The covers of Station To Station and Low are stills from the film, and Bowie’s persona of The Thin White Duke was in some respects a perversion of Newton’s mental state. His performance is the mainstay of The Man Who Fell to Earth, the touchstone which sustains our attention and prevents us from being completely alienated. His pathos-ridden delivery and unusual beauty pulls us hypnotically into the world of Newton and his various pleasures, and the heartbreak is genuine as he slowly but inevitably falls apart.The Man Who Fell to Earth is a remarkable feat of science fiction which finds Roeg at the height of his powers. It can’t be called a masterpiece, because of its blatant disregard for anything resembling discipline or coherency. But it is a deeply cinematic experience with a sense of ambition and scope which is rare in filmmaking, even for the period in which it was conceived. It holds up both as a bona fide cult film and as the document of a bygone age, in filmmaking and in Western society. It’s baffling, bizarre and utterly bonkers, but never anything less than unforgettable.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Rambling and ridiculous but ultimately rewarding


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