Richard James Havis
The Man Who Fell to Earth
David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry
Director: Nicolas Roeg
David Bowie may be an innovative and charismatic performer, but his talents have not translated well onto the big screen. But The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, fitted his androgynous, other-worldly persona perfectly. Bowie acts naturally in a story about a thoughtful alien on a mission to Earth. In doing so, he elevates a good film to a work of art.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, is an introspective drama posing as a science-fiction film. It does feature an alien, but there are no special effects, no robots and no pronouncements about the end of the world. Bowie plays Newton, a humanoid alien who's arrived on Earth in search of water to save his drought-ridden planet.
Newton comes from an advanced civilisation, and has a clutch of patents that revolutionise Earth's industries - photographic film that immediately develops inside the camera, for instance. These enable him to build a vast business empire. He uses the profits to construct a spaceship to save his family back home. But the US government becomes scared of the financial power Newton has amassed, and starts to investigate him - with tragic results.
Roeg made his debut co-directing Performance, an essay in louche decadence starring Mic Jagger. He made his name with Walkabout, an adventure set in the Australian outback. Roeg is not interested in straightforward storytelling, and in Earth he uses a fractured narrative, literary and artistic references and resonant images to tell the story. The viewer sees the world through Newton's eyes - everyday things such as an old woman or a dusty road appear strange and threatening.
Newton is the character Bowie was born to play. Roeg later admitted he didn't so much direct Bowie as let him be. Roeg preferred performers to actors as he found them to be more natural in front of the cameras. Bowie certainly drew on the other-worldliness of his own alien creation, Ziggy Stardust, but, perhaps remembering the horrors of his cocaine addiction, he played Newton as an epicene, introspective, paranoid creature.
The American distributors didn't understand the film when they saw it, so they cut vast chunks from it. Roeg and the cast all but disowned it. But Roeg's longer version was shown in Britain, and it gradually crept out elsewhere. It remains a complex film: a science-fiction story, an awkward romance, an attack on corporate corruption, a tale of betrayal, and an essay on society's innate aversion to anything different.
Bowie adopted Newton's fragile appearance for the Thin White Duke persona that he created for 1976's Station to Station LP. He also used Newton's look for the cover of his 1977 album, Low, which features ideas he'd had for the soundtrack, but were never used. Bowie acted in more films, but never found a role that suited him so perfectly again.