35 years ago, David Bowie made his feature film debut in the far-out science fiction drama, Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” In honor of this anniversary, the movie is being re-issued for a theatrical run in the director’s cut version
If you have not seen “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” or not seen it in a long time, here is a chance to see one of Roeg’s best films and the acting-only debut of soon-to-be-rock-superstar David Bowie. The original release was taken from Roeg’s hands and cut into a linear story. The director’s cut, though, is Roeg’s vision and is, for those who saw it way back when, a brand new movie.
Roughly, the story is about Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), the titular character who came to Earth to save his own people on their dying planet. Newton disguises himself as an unconventional-looking human and brings the advanced technologies of his world to Earth. With the help of patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), Newton amasses a vast fortune. The alien’s plan is to use his enormous wealth to build a spaceship and stage a rescue mission to his own world
That is the overall story but it is the characters he meets during his quest that makes “TMWFtE” a memorable film. Buck Henry, in his coke-bottle lenses eyeglasses, is the force behind Newton’s corporate throne, making the man billions. Candy Clark is housekeeper Mary-Lou who Newton takes an interest in. Newton, whose home planet needs water desperately, is obsessed with that beverage – until Mary-Lou introduces him to alcohol, sex and Earthly love and his rescue plans go awry. Rip Torn, as Dr. Nathan Bryce, befriends Newton but it is soon apparent that he has his own agenda that will bode ill for the alien. Throw into the mix a government conspiracy against the reclusive billionaire to imprison him and keep him plied with alcohol.
This surreal sci-fi flick was adapted from the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis and the film stands up to its years and Bowie still captivates millions to this day. I give it a B+.
Celebrated cinematographer Nicolas Roeg's ("Walkabout") fourth film as a director and his second casting a rock star in a striking acting debut (Roeg's first film, "Performance," costarred Mick Jagger) is returning to the big screen for its 35th anniversary in the 139 minute director's cut which restores Roeg's fragmented editing style and a full frontal nude shot of his star David Bowie (the original U.S. theatrical version ran 119 minutes). Roeg has popped up on the radar again recently with the Criterion release of "Insignificance," his "Don't Look Know" taking the #1 slot in Time Out magazine's Top 100 British films of all time poll and a complete retrospective of his films at the British Film Institute this past March.
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" may be 35 years old, but its themes haven't aged a bit. An alien (David Bowie, beyond ideal casting) comes to earth and disguises himself as Thomas Jerome Newton, a brilliant inventor who, strangely enough, resembles a mod business-suited Ziggy Stardust. With the goal of saving his family, suffering from a severe draught on his home planet, Newton meets with patent lawyer Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and forms World Enterprises, bringing advanced technology from Anthea to Earth. Hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) becomes intrigued with the ailing gentleman and introduces him to the extremes of humanity - religion and vice. Newton rapidly becomes very wealthy, funding for the spacecraft he intends to build, but he also begins to fall prey to alcoholism and the manipulation of those around him. One of his few friends, fuel technician Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), suspects his boss is not of this world and gets proof that is passed to the CIA. When Newton finally tries to depart in triumph (watch for U.S. astronaut Jim Lovell in this scene), he is taken prisoner and subjected to tests, one of which permanently affixes his human contacts to his reptilian eyes. Years later, drunk and demoralized but not having aged, Newton meets the wreckage that Mary Lou has become and even she realizes their relationship has failed. He's left, broken and disillusioned, a stranger in a strange land.
Roeg's style may not seem so strange today, almost 20 years after Tarantino began playing around with time lines in "Pulp Fiction," but in his heyday in the '70's, his style was quite unique, anything but linear. It suits "The Man Who Fell to Earth's" alienation and gives a hallucinatory sheen to the tale. Roeg's images are striking, befitting an auteur who relied more on imagery than words - Bowie unraveling in front of a wall of televisions as Clark does domestic chores, Bowie and Clark being chauffeured through the New Mexico dessert, surreal alien/human intercourse. Water is always around the edges of the tale from whale song on the soundtrack to the lake where Newton builds his private compound to the transparent slime which oozes from alien sex. (Oddly, a recent viewing brought to mind the 1974 "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in the film's opening, in which Newton views a crazy drunk rambling upon his entrance to a town as well as a panel truck transporting livestock - beware ye the journey ahead.) Paul Mayersberg ("Eureka," "Croupier") adapted the Walter Tevis novel "The Man Who Fell to Earth," stripping it of its U.S. party politics in favor of a more generally philosophical outlook. The score by The Mamas and the Papas' John Phillips and Japanese composer and percussionist Stomu Yamashta is more dated than the images which accompany it, but still is the perfect, otherwordly accompaniment.
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" is a cautionary, cynical tale that, while clearly of its era, remains timeless. Whether you are a fan of Bowie, Roeg or films in general, this rerelease offers a rare opportunity to see it where it belongs - on the big screen.
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