Hugely ambitious, imaginative and baffling in equal measure, Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) has gained somewhat of a cult following since it’s initial theatrical release back in 1976. Having garnered its fair share of mixed reviews, the critical responses have tended to fall between two camps: those who see it as the sine qua non of authentic science fiction filmmaking, and those who see it as an un-absorbing and preposterous fable.
But despite the myriad of deliberations that engulf Roeg’s third directorial feature what is without any doubt is the film’s huge influence upon popular culture. From fleeting references in J. J. Abrams’ co-produced supernatural teleseries Fringe to obvious influences on Marilyn Manson’s 1998 glam-rock pastiche Mechanical Animals – The Man Who Feel to Earth is a film whose cinematic footprint long exists in the memories of those who see it – still to this day there’s nothing quite like this.
Based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name, the film follows the story of Thomas Newton (Bowie), a humanoid alien who crash lands on Earth seeking a way to ship water back to his planet, which is suffering a severe drought. The extraterrestrial turns entrepreneur when he builds the largest corporate empire in the US, creating technological advancements well ahead of the time.
With his success comes attention and money but adversely Newton becomes increasingly frustrated by human emotions. Ostensibly, the film is about an alien’s search for water, but what he really discovers is a bitter romance and the ruthless greed of humanity.
Laced with thematic juxtapositions, the cinematographer-turned director uses similar techniques to those of his previous films; in particular the cinematography of the sex scene between Newton and Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) is reminiscent of a similar scene between Laura (Julie Christie) and John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) in the powerful shocker Don’t Look Now (1973) – both spectacularly intercut with contrasting and contradictory material, promoting a distinctive look both in terms of style and in narrative.
The choice of casting Bowie as Tom Newton is inspired – the androgynous mannered rock-star perfectly suiting the role of the space visitor. Furthermore, Bowie – in his first silver-screen appearance – excels, creating a perfectly suited sense of tragedy and melancholic ambiguity in his actions. Yes, it now looks dated and at times it does drag, but it’s the ambition and scope which mark Roeg’s film as a great cinematic achievement.
Ultimately, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a thoroughly rewarding experience for those with patience and an intuitive eye for blissful originality.