The Man Who Fell to Earth
For some reason, The Man Who Fell to Earth feels like a Pink Floyd album to me, even though Floyd had nothing to do with the film. It’s oblique, morose, spacey, a little po-faced about dramatic themes and subtexts that strike high-school students as particularly profound. It’s essentially Dark Side of the Moon 2: The American Dream. David Bowie, by his own admission nuked out of his skull on ten grams of cocaine a day, is a fragile alien who takes the Earth name Thomas Jerome Newton. He, or his ship (it’s not really clear which), lands in New Mexico, and he promptly sets about getting filthy rich with electronic patents. (Perhaps meaningfully, he doesn’t develop anything major to help Earthlings — just better quality cameras and recorded music: leisure gadgets.) His mission is to amass enough wealth to build a spacecraft and return home to his dying, drought-ridden planet with enough water to save his people.
Things don’t work out that way, and a great deal of Man Who Fell is devoted to why they don’t work out. After the first scenes, which feel absurdly telescoped in time (Newton goes from pawn shop to pawn shop selling gold rings, and then he’s shopping his patents around), the movie slows way down. It becomes mesmeric in a way, not to mention repetitive, with not one but two sequences in which chemistry professor Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) gets it on with a student. One tryst might have been enough, but then we realize that director Nicolas Roeg and scripter Paul Mayersberg (adapting a Walter Tevis novel) are contrasting Bryce’s sexual behavior with that of Newton, who meets and becomes enamored with hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). We might also throw in Newton’s lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry), whose homosexuality is handled so matter-of-factly we may have to remind ourselves the film was released in 1976.
But then Roeg and Mayersberg are both British. For a while, based on this movie and Don’t Look Now, Roeg had a glowing international reputation for a truly adult erotic sensibility. The frequent sex in this film is explicit, joyous, desolate, satirical, but never American, never inflected with that peculiar Puritan sense of guilt and sin. People have sex in the movie because they’re of age and they want to. It happens often enough (though never between Farnsworth and his lover, significantly) that one might begin to read Man Who Fell as an allegory about American sexual mores and how the government seeks to punish sex. It’s about roughly fifty other things too, of course. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the film is hazy and amorphous enough to be about whatever you want it to. Christ allegory? Sure. An “alien” (British) view of “Earth” (America)? Why not.
The movie is bleakly gorgeous, with a growing sense of ennui, but not a lot of urgency to Newton’s mission. We have no idea how much time is passing, and besides, Newton gets sidetracked with twin addictions to alcohol and television. He sits around drinking and watching the tube (in some scenes multiple TVs) while his chance to make a difference passes him by. That’s the American dream whose native hue of resolution, to paraphrase Hamlet, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of CBS and Beefeater. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who has fallen from the pinnacle of this and Don’t Look Now to the depths of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) lights the New Mexico desert and cottage lakes for mysterious beauty, and makes Newton’s interior lodgings appropriately antiseptic. Past a certain point, Newton might as well be a zoo creature in a cage even before the plot essentially makes him one.
The Man Who Fell to Earth gains, of course, from its on-the-nose casting of Bowie in the lead. He isn’t acting, quite; again by his own admission, he was stoned and behaving in character. His scenes with Candy Clark, who overacts and whose voice sounds too clangorously dubbed, feel emotionally lopsided: he’s Brit cool, she’s hot-blooded American Woman. (I should point out that the American men don’t come off much better.) But as a sort of found object of alienated angst, Bowie is suitably iconic. The movie is so effective at building a mood of dislocation that it’s almost a bummer when it has to punch its time card as a sci-fi film, with scenes of Dr. Bryce surreptitiously getting a photo of Newton to prove he’s an alien and then asking him if he’s the first visitor to Earth. Newton gives a rather too explicit answer to that question; it would have been better if he’d just flashed an enigmatic smirk. Like many another classic science-fiction film, Man Who Fell seems larger than its sci-fi trappings, seems to have more on its mind and under the hood.