Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is the kind of film you’d expect from a cinematographer-turned-director. Every shot could be slipped undetected into a Taschen photography book. Like a book of photographs, TMWFTE has vivid colors and good use of lens flare and shadow. It’s never boring, but randomly linear. It would be a shame to remove a frame of this rich, engaging film, but while the credits rolled, I felt like I’d put together a jigsaw puzzle only to find I was missing several pieces.
Not since “Blue Velvet” has a soundtrack added as much to, or suited a film as perfectly. Roy Orbison is crucial to both, because his voice is both beautiful and otherworldly. The Mamas & The Papas’ John Phillips was the musical director, and he makes effective use of a wide scope of music; Orbison’s Blue Bayou, Jim Reeves’ Make The World Go Away, Artie Shaw’s Stardust, and Louis Armstrong’s Blueberry Hill. Filming fell between David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and “Station To Station”, albums–his forays into what he called “plastic soul.” This was a period where he reportedly struggled with cocaine-fueled paranoia, just before moving to Berlin and recording several albums of dissonant electronic music with Brian Eno.
Bowie’s title character; “Mr. Newton,” is in ill health throughout the film, so cocaine addiction doubles handily as method acting. You can almost hear him say “I’ll quit, as soon as I’m done with this film.” It’s a moralistic tale that owes a debt to 1951’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. Both illustrate how man’s suspicious, greedy nature won’t allow him to let the most harmless extraterrestrial go unmolested. Man’s inhumanity to spaceman was handled more capably in both “Starman” and “E.T.”, but this film has value for fans of atmospheric sci-fi, artsy cinematography, or Bowie. I’m a big fan of movies that remind us how fearful, mistrusting, greedy and treacherous we are as a race. Otherwise, I start thinking that it’s just me.
Roeg had previously worked with Mick Jagger in “Performance”, and couldn’t have found a more suitable and photogenic subject than David Bowie, who has two-toned red & blonde hair (for the role) and two different colored eyes as well! Before punk rock! Which raises the question, if your goal was to try to blend in with humans, could you choose one who stands out more than David Bowie? Go for unearthly, or androgynous, but not both! Why not just buy a “My other car is a spaceship!” bumper sticker? Bowie’s Mr. Newton comes from a world that’s in desperate need of water, and he falls to earth to raise the money to save his family by patenting technological advances. But he seems to get sidetracked by Gordon’s Gin. I don’t think they had product placement in films in 1976, but this flick will make you want to guzzle gin straight from the bottle! The only place you’ll find more martinis onscreen is in the “Sex and The City” movie or “Cocktail.”
The cast is superb: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Buck Henry, and Candy Clark. Buck Henry wears almost comically thick glasses as the patent lawyer Mr. Newton hires to protect his lucrative inventions. With brown hair, Clark looks like an entirely different woman than we remember from American Graffiti. She’s almost a “familiar” to Bowie’s anti-social “vampire” and brings him whatever he requires… the seven televisions he watches simultaneously, for instance. Before long, he’s an alcoholic, watching twelve TVs at once and listening to music as well. What is he, an extraterrestrial or a teenager? Candy Clark was romantically involved with Roeg during the period the film was made. Why don’t any of my paramours have industry connections? The closest I’ve come, was a dalliance with a cocktail waitress who then offered me a free item off the menu. I think she was dating the cook, because I ordered chicken fingers, and got all middle fingers.
As is always the case in rock-star-driven vehicles, the demands on Bowie’s acting become more than he can handle, but he delivers on the other demand of the role, which is to look cool enough for the series of album covers that this film is at heart. In flashbacks you get that Bowie is either a visitor from another planet, or a nutter, and the flashbacks are where Roeg excels. It’s an excellent film visually and aurally, but the narrative stumbles in the way films by ambitious directors like Kubrick, Lynch and Roeg sometimes do. “Kubrick, Lynch and Roeg” sounds like some surreal law firm: “Your honor, we’re suing to recover our tank of homicidal laughing gas, our alien contact lenses, and our monolith.”
It has several soft-core scenes, and you’re treated to more than one glimpse of Bowie’s willie and Candy Clark’s untrimmed bush. After all, it WAS shot in the 70’s. It will make younger readers realize why that part of the female anatomy was nicknamed a “beaver.” Ms. Clark’s mons venus looks like a reddish-brown rodent swimming in a lake of milky white skin. Originally receiving an X-Rating, in Britain, the Criterion Collection 138 minute director’s cut received an “R” in 2008 (and is available on Blu-ray Disc). Rent it–if you’re not “creeped out” by rodentia.