Nic Roeg’s subversive, seminal sci-fi, The Man Who Fell To Earth has been gifted with a gorgeous 4K makeover and a combined cinema/Blu-ray release for its fortieth anniversary. Based on Walter Tevis’ novel, Roeg’s film features the big screen debut of David Bowie and sees the milk quaffing rock god from Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor, slide effortlessly into the role of Thomas Jerome Newton: an astute, jaded and fragile alien, masquerading as a businessman on earth.
Arriving a year before Star Wars changed science-fiction forever (and cinema in general), The Man Who Fell To Earth remains an eloquent, opaque and transcendental masterpiece about the power of popular culture and how it can re-shape and manipulate. Roeg’s film bears stylistic comparisons to his disjointed, London gangster flick Performance, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell. This starred another seemingly drug addled rock star, Mick Jagger, and was as challenging and rewarding as his previous dreamlike masterpiece Don’t Look Now, which embraced horror over sci-fi.
After an abstract intro featuring stock footage of a space craft penetrating the earth’s atmosphere, accompanied by unusual sound and an atmospheric but bewildering score, we meet Jerome Newton skidding down a rocky hill with the sun blinking behind him. He soaks up the desolate surroundings (a red neck, mid-American town) while thirsty and alone. The rest of the film sees him embark on a clandestine business venture while slowly adapting to our culture before it engulfs him. Newton hires lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), who is well versed in patents, to assist him in a lucrative venture which leads to the forming of multi-national technological conglomerate, World Enterprises. But the androgynous alien has other plans.
The Man Who Fell To Earth in many ways feels at odds and out of sync with culture and technology, as much today as when first released. It’s also innately and inherently analogue. The fabricated technological advancements, introduced by Newton (self-developing film, music on a silver ball) are restricted by format limitations of the time and not really relevant to today’s digital landscape. The self-developing film Newton “invents” seems almost as obsolete as film itself but interestingly combines the “instant” appeal of digital tech with the tangible celluloid analogue format.
From a modern digital perspective these fabricated speculations seem quaint but remain nifty due to the manner in which they are presented, contributing to a subtle retro air that compliments the dusty desert settings and sleek sci-fi ambience. The Man Who Fell To Earth seems progressive due to the manner in which Roeg applies abstract, experimental aesthetics, introducing motifs into a populist genre that had, at the time, not shaken the cardboard set connotations of Star Trek or the wonky, rubber suited monsters in which coloured the likes of Ed Wood and Roger Corman B movies.
Aside from a few advancing genre features (2001: A Space Odyssey, Westworld and Planet of the Apes), this type of science fiction had not fully flowered into mainstream American cinema before or been embraced by mass audiences. It arguably still hasn’t to the degree that it deserves, but maybe intelligent sci-fi films will always remain on the outskirts, quietly waiting to be discovered without the benefit of mass marketing. Even the likes of The Thing, Blade Runner and Brazil bombed at the box office back in the day, not to mention the more recent indie masterstrokes: Lars Von Triers’ Melancholia, Nacho Vigalondo’s excellent Timecrimes and the incredible Coherence, from director James Ward Byrkit.
Roeg’s film felt more aligned with Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), earlier Russian sci-fi features Mechte navstrechu (1963) and Battle Beyond the Sun (1959) or the cold Czech space b-movie Ikarie XB-1 (1963) with its gauche austerity and twisted mise en scene. The technology of its analogue celluloid tech advancements remain unexplored and vague, given the popularity of the Polaroid SX-70 in the 1970s, and could have informed the concept a little better, but they are also irrelevant next to the story and Newton’s character.
His self-developing film attempts to breathe life into technology on the cusp of becoming obsolete but these skewered perspectives and warped ideas that seem mad and out of context are also strangely human in design, incorporating an unintentional imperfection into the jarring, drug addled phantasm. “The company is dumping computers and investing in human beings, because you get new ideas by making mistakes,” states the character of Farnsworth in an early scene.
Jarring POV shots, scenes bleed into each other like dreams while Pieter Brueghel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus appears a couple of times, possibly to serve as a trigger indication, foreshadowing as a metaphor. Or is it merely a red herring? Other supporting characters arrive: Hotel maid Mary Lou (Candy Clarke) comforts a discombobulated Bowie before the couple start a relationship. Mary Lou states, in her mini-monologue, that she’s “just end up like everybody else”, not realising she has been recently fraternising with an alien. Meanwhile scientist and lecturer Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) announces: “For a whole year I was only interested in two things: fucking and World Enterprises,” while sleeping with several of his students until Oliver Farnsworth offers him a life changing position at Newton’s organisation. The story loses touch when it dwells for a little too long in the lives of lesser characters but their voice-over intros prove entertaining and insightful while the redneck subcultures country and western music melds awkwardly with the stark Euro sci-fi vibe but also oddly makes it more compelling.
After Bowie’s original music for the film was scuppered (only to later re-surface in altered attire on the second half of his Low album), the film was temp scored using Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and later gilded by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta’s peculiar, experimental tracks which bled a bit more abstract jazz into the backdrop than the stark electronica of David Bowie’s Low would have managed. The sounds drips effectively, smothering the film’s brutal facets before sporadically exploding into Goblinesque funk.
The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack is also soon to be released for the first time, to coincide with the film’s 4K makeover, and resonates as remarkable yet lost somewhere between the sound of Low and Young Americans, but it is nothing like Station To Station: the actual Bowie album that was recorded between the aforementioned. It’s more like a work Bowie could have made in an alternative universe, another state of being.
Newton’s arrival on earth could also be interpreted as a metaphor for Bowie’s in America a few years earlier, reflected in the bee-bop glam rock of his Aladdin Sane album while shots of the Thin White Duke, dizzy in the back of a limo, mirror those featured in Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor doc, a year earlier, which served as the catalyst for Roeg casting Bowie in the lead role. Other scenes see Newton collapsing in an elevator and vomiting on the floor of his hotel bedroom while bleeding from the nose and on the cusp of death. This type of activity clearly echoes the antics of many a fractured rock star, while also begging the question as to whether or not Roeg had succeeded in extracting Bowie’s finest big screen performance, and if so how much of a performance was it?
Roeg stated in the 2003 documentary “Watching the Alien” that he believed most films have too much acting in them, which suggested that, by casting Bowie, those genuine traits were considered a key component to crafting a more genuine character and that little performance was actually required. Roeg had previously worked with Mick Jagger in Performance (and later with Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing) so must have had some kind of insight into the mind of a jaded rock icon.
After World Enterprise’s success, Newton builds a home by a lake with Mary Lou. He goes to church, loses himself in TV, piles sets upon sets then descends into alcoholism and insanity while gradually growing more human. At times Newton literally stares through his problems, a reality that takes the form of a livid Mary Lou, by burying his mind in the wall of monitors until he starts going mad, culminating in a massive screaming scene that echoes Malcolm McDowell’s pin open eyed, subliminal message meltdown in A Clockwork Orange. Meanwhile further scenes featuring gun-sucking bedroom exploits and a bald, yellow-eyed Bowie with tubes sprouting out of his head, enforce a surreal and dream-like air that makes for cinema magic.
“The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life, but it’s all just waves in space,” Bowie states to Bryce while a voice on the TV, in an earlier sequence, relays “I think people should always behave like they’re between planes”. Bryce labels himself a “disillusioned scientist”: like the “cynical writer, alcoholic actor and the spaced out space man”. He is dubious about his work with Newton because he fears he may be building a weapon.
It is within these conflicting ideas and elements where The Man Who Fell To Earth finds its identity as a matchless cinematic oddity. It’s chances of evolving sci-fi may have been initially quashed by the arrival of Star Wars but nowadays its footprints can be felt in the likes of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Duncan Jones’ Moon and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin and it remains an inimitable cult classic that warrants endless re-watching.
Bowie slides into this slither of analogue sci-fi at its most subversive. Both it and he remain contradictory, seemingly lost, out without context. It seems out of touch with society, but oddly in tune with its confused sense of humanity, which is ironic considering the film is about an alien. Scenes on TVs synchronise with events in “reality” when the film falls into art imitating life mode yet its technology feels secondary to the humanity on display. Embellished by the surreal imagery and disjointed score/ natural backdrops. “I don’t hate anyone. I can’t,” declares Newton.
Can we also assume he cannot love? He later goes on to state: “I’m not a scientist but I believe all things begin and end in eternity,” which suggests he acknowledges the vastness of time and space but doesn’t directly acknowledge a God or higher power of any kind. Whether or not the film can be seen as a Christian parable, as some critics believe, despite its skewered technology missteps, The Man Who Fell To Earth remains as commanding and relevant now as it ever was, in our age of multiple monitor watching. It’s a genuine sci-fi one of a kind that deserves a big screen revisit.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH will be back in cinemas from September 9th. The Collector’s Edition, Blu-Ray, DVD and download will be available from October 24th.