Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Man Who Fell To Earth

"Released the year before Spielberg and Lucas changed the genre and thus hippie sci-fi's last hurrah, this typically fragmented Nicholas Roeg production stars David Bowie in the role he was born (or perhaps reborn) to play — a distinguished visitor from another world." —J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (1976, 138 min, 35mm).

David Bowie is no stranger to film. From Tony Scott's underrated vampire flick The Hunger to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (as Pontius Pilate), Bowie’s gaunt, skeletal physique, his otherworldly aura, indeed his alluring alien nature, was the perfect complement to Nicholas Roeg's real-deal alien in the trippy 1976 feature film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg was compelled to cast Bowie as his leading extraterrestrial after watching him in Alan Yentob's way-out-there documentary, Cracked Actor, in which the singer truly resembles an alien life force more than any flesh-and-blood human being. 

Roeg's hugely ambitious and imaginative film transforms a straightforward science fiction story (from the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis) into a rich kaleidoscope of contemporary America. Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), an alien whose understanding of our world is limited to monitoring TV stations, arrives on earth, builds the largest corporate empire in the U.S. to further his mission, and then becomes increasingly frustrated by human emotion and the surreality of [American] life. What follows is as much a love story as sci-fi. Newton becomes involved in an almost pulp-like romance with Mary Lou (Candy Clark), played out to the pop hits of middle America, which culminates in the man's "fall" from innocence. No other pop sci-fi novels (or films), with the exceptions of Stranger in a Strange Land, Childhood's End and Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan, truly explore the connection between what is speculative about the future and the pop culture in which we live. 

Ultimately revealing his alien form to Mary Lou, who is overwhelmed and terrified, the couple split. Betrayed by confidant, Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), Newton is imprisoned by the government in a luxury condo. Intermittent cutscenes show a wife and child slowly dying on Newton's home planet. By film's end, his family has perished and Newton is marooned on earth. We cried when Earth nearly killed E.T., but E.T., in contrast, made a friend and found his way home. In Roeg's space opera, Earth becomes the alien's home, but the result is a broken spirit. (Imagine Spielberg making something like that.) The Man Who Fell to Earth is a sci-fi Days of Wine and Roses for the art-house crowd. The cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond looks fantastic and Bowie's androgynous screen presence is never less than fascinating.

To be sure, Bowie is top notch as Thomas Jerome Newton, but ironically, he was never consulted on the film's soundtrack. That honor went to another rock star, John Phillips, former leader of '60s folk troubadours the Mamas & the Papas, who hand-picked the OST from a selection of pop, classical and original compositions. It's a soundtrack that truly works, in the same way that Kubrick's 2001 soundtrack, as it appears in the film, is superior to the Alex North film score that Kubrick scrapped (imagine 2001 without "Also Sprach Zarathustra"). Who knows what Bowie would have chosen for incidental music, but interestingly, 1976 simultaneously gave us the Thin White Duke in Bowie's pseudo-masterpiece Station to Station. The LP's cover further convolutes the issue by featuring the alien in his spacecraft. Many made the obvious association, surprised when no Bowie music appears in the film. A wise choice on Roeg's part, Station to Station just didn't fit the Man Who Fell to Earth premise. We're left instead with an interesting if accidental, marketing ploy.

The New York Times had praise for the film, if not high praise, stating, "There are quite a few science-fiction movies scheduled to come out in the next year or so. We shall be lucky if even one or two are as absorbing and as beautiful as The Man Who Fell to Earth."