United Kingdom. Directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1976. Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey. 139 minutes.
David Bowie scored his first hit single in 1969: “Space Oddity,” in which Major Tom flies to space and doesn’t come back. Over the next few years, Bowie would continue in an overtly science-fiction-inflected vein, creating characters like Ziggy Stardust and developing a musical version of 1984 (eventually aborted). By the mid-’70s, you could probably be forgiven for assuming he actually did come from another planet. The logical progression of his image would then be to play an alien in a movie; with his unnatural hair coloring, emaciated frame, angular, androgynous features, and permanently dilated right eye, he certainly looked the part.
Legend posits many actors either considered or approached to play the title role in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth: Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford, Mick Jagger, even author Michael Crichton (Roeg’s first choice). In retrospect, however, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton–an alien from a dying, war-scarred planet who comes to Earth in a desperate bid to save his people, only to become tempted and corrupted by the vices of humanity (alcohol, television, and sex: note how Newton’s true form lacks genitals and most orifices)–could only be played by David Bowie.
In a sense, the film could serve as a thinly veiled biography of Bowie, who’d become rich and famous seemingly overnight, who possessed a lucrative brilliance…and who also developed an addiction to cocaine. (Indeed, Tevis later came to realize that the story served as a metaphor for his alcoholism.) Bowie approaches the role with a specific naïveté, that of the artist who wants to act but has no real idea how to go about it. Constantly zonked out on nose candy, able to interact with the world around him but not feeling part of it, the otherworldly alienation that Bowie/Newton exhibits isn’t an act.
An auteur who made his bones under Roger Corman and came into his own as a filmmaker in the wake of the French New Wave, Roeg complements Bowie’s performance (or lack thereof) with the perfect aesthetic sense and set of visuals. Having perfected the art of hazy, hypnotic, mildly psychedelic atmospherics with 1971’s Walkabout, he gives the flashbacks to Newton’s home planet a sense of having been filmed on location after the apocalypse. He gives the film a steady, deliberate pace, always keeping emotional distance from the characters even in their passionate moments.
Roeg’s distinct, singular vision of the film has its drawbacks. Candy Clark, playing a hotel housekeeper who becomes Newton’s lover, careens wildly between “embarrassing” and “atrocious.” Roeg often employs symbolism too obscure for its own good, and occasionally falls prey to self-indulgence. Most notably, at nearly two and a half hours, the film is at least 30 minutes too long, and particularly drags during its final act.
Yet, ultimately, The Man Who Fell to Earth serves as an important document of what David Bowie represented, and–perhaps inadvertently–who he actually was during this stage of his career. Bowie contained multitudes–Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Goblin King, the sophisticated crooner of Let’s Dance–yet in a very real sense, the Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.
R.I.P. David Bowie (David Robert Jones) 1947-2016