2 Hr., 18 Mins.
The Man Who Fell to Earth September 11, 2019
he Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) feels at once heady and airy. Its ideas and scope are meant to be consequential and large-seeming, but experiencing the two-and-a-half-hour-long movie is something more akin to floating down through a seemingly bottomless pit under the influence. You’re soaring and soaring, uncertain where you’ll end up, yet your dulled senses allow you to be unbothered by the
The movie stars David Bowie, here at the height of his cocaine-sprinkled androgyny. He's the title character: an alien who crash lands on Earth in a spaceship on a boringly sunny day in georgic New Mexico. He intends, unlike the majority of the celestial beings we meet in the movies, not to conquer the planet but to save his own. We learn, through airy and weird flashbacks, that this alien’s home planet is without water — something it needs to survive perhaps even more than ours. The alien's wife and kids are waiting for him. His plan to fix the dearth, on Earth, is too ambitious for its own good. Introducing himself to the human population as a dapper Essex native named Thomas Jerome Newton once he gets to the big city, the latter will use a highly evolved technology from home to patent in-the-works inventions on Earth. The money he’ll accrue, Newton figures, will be enough to help him build a spaceship big enough to not only get himself back home but store in it enough water to sustain it for the years to come.
The Man Who Fell to Earth will come to be less about Newton's loaded plot and more about the human experiences with which Newton will become acquainted, then become ruined by. Most of them are introduced to him by Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a materialistic and slightly naīve factotum he meets in a hotel. It’s unclear to us, really, what the draw is between these people — Newton and Mary-Lou, for most of the movie, don’t even at the bare minimum seem fascinated by one another in a non-exotic way. But they embark on the kind of relationship that will make an imprint on them both. Mary-Lou introduces Newton to the joys of sex, alcohol, and television. (He especially takes to the latter; Newton often deftly sits in a chair and watches several screens at once. He's Emily Nussbaum as a fly.)
There's some mumbo jumbo about Newton’s identity being discovered, which leads to shenanigans that feel like ghostlier versions of what you’d see in a characteristic financial thriller. This is where, I think, the movie most fumbles. It treats the more standard-fare developments in the plot as dreamily as it does its more conspicuously dreamy elements, which leads us into more of a haze than a potentially subversive universe. The movie has been written by Paul Mayersberg and directed by Nicolas Roeg. It’s especially clear that it comes from Roeg, who, by 1976, was hot. He’d helmed already-influential opuses like 1970’s delirious Performance, which starred Mick Jagger, another vogue rock star, and Don’t Look Now (1973), that sinister and sexy marital drama.
I was only lukewarm on both those movies. But I admired the way Roeg, who’d previously worked as a cinematographer, hexed me. Even if the stories being offered didn’t feel like much more than concepts hovering in a rainbowed ether, what they achieved on aesthetic and stylistic levels left smoke clouds. The Man Who Fell to Earth feels in contrast more insubstantial in terms of story, which we can tell isn’t supposed to be the case. It’s evident that Mayersberg was going for a brainy kind of science-fiction tale here — an allegory for the perils and unrealisticness of totally effective cultural assimilation; a parable on how easily capitalistic avarice can destroy those who practice it; a story about how the cyclical nature of humanity is one of its most nightmarish aspects. But because the movie is so phantasmic, these conversation pieces become wispier than apparitions scurrying about a haunted bungalow. They’re there, but to us they're more just flyaway oddities that can induce a goose pimple or two.
But the movie grabbed me. Like early Michelangelo Antonioni or the most somber of Mario Bava, it was the sheen coating the content that pulled me in, not the content, and in a rare twist was that a spell I enjoyed being put under. Roeg upholds a silky creepiness I liked being blanketed in. Bowie could be said to be giving a rather indecipherable performance, but that’s what I suspect both he and Mayersberg were going for. Bowie, who has an effortless enigma to him, pulls it off; you spend the movie wanting to find out more without ever getting to his crux. But it’s an alluring Sisyphean task; we don’t want to complete it, maybe. Clark is a winning counter to Bowie even if I never understood why Mary-Lou and Newton make a point to devote themselves to one another; the efficiency of the musician turned actor and the actress-actress, I suppose, is a victory of individual performance, not chemistry. There’s discordance like this everywhere in the film, yet it all works toward the all-important trance; the appeal of Roeg, which I’ve always had a difficult time fully giving myself over to, has, I think, finally gotten to me. A-