Bowie’s from spaaace: The Man Who Fell to Earth

bowie001RE-EVALUATING the appeal of a film like The Man Who Fell to Earth inevitably raises questions of just how much cocaine the makers were snorting on-set. Our star, David Bowie – and let’s face it, he’s the only reason anyone really remembers this – admits to subsisting on a diet of chilis, milk and rail blizzards during this period and boy howdy does it show. This kind of (heavily-implied) excess makes Boogie Nights look like The Magic Roundabout; the mounting consumption of gin must surely be a perfect crystallisation of verisimilitude, insomuch as everyone behind and in front of the camera was quite probably pissed off their ****ing face.

This is not, of course, to say the film is without artistry, far from it. This isn’t just a showreel of arresting, surreal imagery and gooey alien sex scenes; at its core, The Man Who Fell to Earth revolves around the corrupting influence of humanity, poisoning the altruistic intentions of Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), the titular alien. Newton, on a mission to save his dying planet from a scorching drought, finds himself assaulted by booze, sex, gun-sex and, most prominently, television, mining the same thematic gold as Network, released in the same year (1976).

The narrative is small potatoes though. Bowie’s crystal performance as the strange alien in a stranger land with his crisp English accent perfectly embodies a baffled spaceman unable to comprehend a bloated, corporate America. Rip Torn’s grinning, predatory college professor seduces nubile students while Newton fearfully watches a kabuki performance. Candy Clark’s drunken nymphet chambermaid introduces Newton to the wonders of gin, shrieking as he watches 12 televisions at the same time. People are defenestrated, space-people walk slowly and Bowie looks thoroughly emaciated. Things are strange.

Director Nicholas Roeg, fresh off the heels of the haunting Don’t Look Now, brings his signature cinematographical style to the film; beautiful, desolate landscapes, frenzied flashcuts and rattling quick-zooms assault the frame, distorting Newton’s reality and the audience’s understanding of otherwise simple narrative events. If nothing else, the film is breathtakingly gorgeous to look at, even if the plot can be frustratingly inaccessible. The end result is a film with incredible visual potency and rather limp narrative integrity. Beautiful yet hollow, The Man Who Fell to Earth’s direction encapsulates and consummates the progression of its themes.

In its woozy, dreamlike state, the idiosyncratically alien The Man Who Fell to Earth fails to have the same visceral impact as Don’t Look Now; it does, however, retain its sense of weird dread, each shot oozing with strange, eerie charisma. There are only so many words for ‘strange’ that exist but all of them apply to this weird and elusive film. The decision to screen it as part of the Cult Film Club is unsurprising considering its otherworldly veneer – it was only a few months ago that 2001: A Space Odyssey was shown. Much like that film, The Man Who Fell to Earth values visuals over narrative and icy alienation over human warmth. You owe it to yourself to see it at least once, even if it’s only to see just how big Jareth the Goblin King’s bulge really is.