For many it must have been simply implausible that Nicolas Roeg’s fourth feature could work at all. David Bowie’s star power aside – the rock icon was operating at the peak of his powers by the mid-1970s – the mercurial Starman was an otherwise untested leading man saddled with more than a few habits that could have caused problems during the filming process. But Roeg, having directed another colossal rock star, Mick Jagger, in his 1970 directorial debut Performance, had history in the matter of bringing Britain’s greatest, most famous musicians to the big screen. Skeptics be damned, Nicolas Roeg’s complex sci-fi stands beside his other masterpiece Don’t Look Now as one of the most implacable but enduring films of its time.
Adapted from Walter Tevis’ critically acclaimed 1963 novel of the same name, The Man Who Fell to Earth follows an alien’s attempts to bring water back to his home planet in order to save his family. To achieve this end, Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie’s eponymous alien) cultivates a corporate empire with patents for technology that he has brought with him from his home planet. Before long Newton has developed a taste for both the pleasures and vices of humankind. Then, tragically, before Newton is able to return home he is intercepted by a characteristically untrusting American government who are determined to uncover who he really is. Roeg’s sophisticated film manages to comment upon displacement and loneliness while also confronting capitalistic decadence, alcoholism, and Cold War paranoia. Needless to say, the film’s status as a classic has developed in the years following its initial release. Writing in 1976, Roger Ebert called it “a film so preposterous and posturing, so filled with gaps of logic and continuity, that if it weren’t so solemn there’d be the temptation to laugh aloud.” Hindsight is a fine thing and the same is not so often said today.
The temptation to worship all things Bowie aside, The Man Who Fell to Earth is certainly a hard film to love. Nicolas Roeg’s intimation that Earth is by far the most fucked-up planet in the universe is hardly the most palatable of messages for earthly audiences and his plot is often thick and gloopy. But Roeg has always been particularly adept at utilising film form to reinforce his themes; take, for instance, the manipulative plotting of Don’t Look Now as a prime example. For The Man Who Fell to Earth, the convoluted plot is expressive of the point that the film is trying to make: life on Earth, like the film, is all about the destructiveness of distraction – our lives are continually filled up with stuff, some of it worthwhile and some not. For the goal-oriented outsider Newton, Earth is so pointlessly and destructively distracting that he fails to make good on the primary purpose of his visit and his family (and possibly species) is left to perish. In the end, the film is a collage of, and meditation on, earthly excess. Beneath the surface of our seemingly happy lives – and surfaces, especially reflective ones, are a vitally important motif throughout the film – lies a species content with inertia, a species unmotivated to solve the big issues that might thwart our continued existence. It’s a pretty damning point to make but one that, over the years, has increased in its power.
At the sun-lit heart of Roeg’s strikingly beautiful odyssey into the heart of humankind lies the one and only David Bowie in what is without question his definitive role. Without attempting to take anything away from Bowie’s achievement, it is fair to argue that his performance is in fact improved by his apparent unfamiliarity with acting. His hesitance, awkwardness, and general inexperience creates a natural otherworldliness that captures the themes of the novel while embracing Bowie’s own unique iconography.
Released between 1975’s soul-inflected Young Americans (a poster for which can be seen in a record store towards the end of the film) and 1976’s drug-fuelled masterpiece Station to Station (which was the first of two Bowie albums, followed by Low, to use stills from the film as artwork), Roeg’s film sits at the precarious apex of Bowie’s musical career. Watching Bowie in this film is like witnessing the supernova that precedes the black hole. Ever the alien, Bowie’s frail body, distracted gaze, and soft voice allows his performance to transcend the film and comment on his own incendiary life. If anything, Bowie’s performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth goes as far as to make sense of him as a pop culture icon; it compounds many aspects of his enigmatic star image, not least his multifaceted queerness, to emphasise just how revolutionary he was at the time.
Of course, given his recent death, it is now increasingly difficult to separate reappraisals of Bowie’s work from the culturally arresting sadness that followed his passing. Nevertheless, the 40th anniversary of The Man Who Fell to Earth gives us an opportunity to reflect on his exquisite and diverse talents. Complex, creative, intelligent, beautiful, and startlingly remote; all the words that can be applied to Bowie can also be used to describe Nicolas Roeg’s utterly singular masterpiece.
One Room With a View would like to thank StudioCanal whose exquisite 40th anniversary 4K remaster and release of The Man Who Fell to Earth prompted this article.