Published on January 18th, 2022 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
The Criterion Cut: The Man Who Fell to Earth
Taking Nicolas Roeg and adding David Bowie sounds like it should be a template for awesomeness, but The Man Who Fell to Earth often fails.
In many ways this film has the hallmarks of being an interesting project: a cult science fiction, bordering on the surreal, featuring David Bowie as a sort of Ziggy Stardust/space alien analogue. Unfortunately, the promise of this film is more intriguing than the final product.
The Man Who Fell to Earth finds director Nicolas Roeg working in science fiction and casts David Bowie as an alien from a planet dying from a severe drought (identified as the planet Anthea in Walter Tevis’ original novel), who goes on a sojourn to earth to try and find water to save his alien wife and child. What follows is a series of vignettes that don’t pay much attention to chronology as the film rapidly jumps all over the place. The viewer loosely follows an alien (who goes by the name Thomas Jerome Newton) and his adventures on earth, as he patents the technology from his spaceship in order to pay for his quest to bring water back to Anthea. Soon after (at least according to the film’s weird chronology) he lapses into a debauched life of alcohol and an unhappy second marriage to a human named Mary-Lou (former model Candy Clark), eventually being captured and experimented on by the government.
Visually the film has some well-done shots and some good composition, likely owing to Roeg’s background as a photographer. Unfortunately, the scenes don’t amount to much other than well composed camera shots. The aesthetics are there, but the acting and writing aren’t enough to support the visuals.
As for the acting, Candy Clark is by far the worst actor of the cast. However Bowie’s acting range is also fairly limited in that he mostly just looks emotionally detached and disconnected from everything, seemingly staring off camera. Rip Torn as a lascivious chemistry professor who takes advantage of his young students and ends up working for Newton’s World Enterprises plays his usual irascible, grumpy character that he has, quite honestly, done to much greater effect in The Larry Sanders Show.
There are, of course, nods to Bowie’s own mentally fractured and unhinged personality traits in Newton, as Bowie was at his most heavy cocaine addiction at the time. Roeg imbues Newton with much of the same paranoia and mentally unstable personality that had afflicted Bowie in the 1970s. Newton shares a nausea over elevators drawn from Bowie’s own fear of elevators (and heights in general), and I cannot help but think that the scene where the government scientists accidentally fuse Newton’s human disguise contacts to his alien (and more lizard-like) alien eyes is a callback to Bowie’s famous dilated pupil that gave him an eerie, almost alien appearance. Indeed, the film relies a lot on establishing parallels between Bowie’s tumultuous life at the time and his use of the literal alien iconography as metaphorical alienation that Bowie excelled at in the 1970s.
As I mentioned, there are some interesting visuals in the film, two of which Bowie would later use to adorn the album covers for Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977), but in the end they don’t amount to much. The one-size-fits-all commentary on mass media (Newton is often seen watching up to nine TV sets at a time), and the vaguely critical tone in regards to capitalism and the feeling of being an outsider are too broadly drawn to provide any real insight. Ultimately The Man Who Fell to Earth ends up being a random collage of ideas assembled together in a surrealistic take that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a film only for the curious Bowie-obsessives or Nicolas Roeg die hards.