David Bowie cements his status as a spaceman in Nicolas Roeg’s extraterrestrial tragedy.
Nicolas Roeg’s cool, cynical sci-fi oddity from 1976 is an outsider’s view of America, and of humanity. Based on the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth sees rock superstar David Bowie plummet from the sky, and not for the first time…
Four years earlier Bowie had successfully reinvented himself as another doomed alien – Ziggy Stardust – the 'Martian messiah who twanged a guitar'. In The Man Who Fell to Earth Bowie the actor plays Bowie the musician, complete with his own accent and signature flame red hair; he’s rocking the emaciated elegance of the post Ziggy era – this is his Thin White Duke persona from the 'Station to Station' album.
In Roeg’s third solo feature, Bowie’s alter-ego is Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid extraterrestrial posing as a dapper British innovator. Newton is on a mission to build a spacecraft to enable him to transport water back to his drought-stricken home planet in order to save his family.
Early on he visits patents attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) with plans for a number of incredible electronics innovations. These allow him to form the technological colossus World Enterprises Corporation and generate the funds needed for his lifesaving mission.
During his time on earth Newton enters into a relationship with poor, sweet Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), who he first meets when he collapses in the elevator she’s operating. He quickly moves her into his hotel room and she unquestioningly accepts his myriad quirks, showing him the most desperate devotion. Newton later befriends and confides in former college professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), now an employee of his company, who will ultimately unmask him as an alien.
As a Brit working abroad Roeg identified with Newton. Throughout his musical career Bowie has also frequently explored his own troubled, outsider’s relationship with America in such songs as 'Young Americans', 'This is Not America' and "I’m Afraid of Americans'.
Between 1970 and 1980 Roeg was up there with the most original, uncompromising directors in Britain – his extraordinary run of visionary features comprised: Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing. His surreal and disorientating films turn human beings inside out, showing humanity in extremis; they feature gangsters, aliens, drugs and death, and deal in sexual obsession, survival and crisis’ of identity.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a chilling portrait of the corruptive nature of mankind – and in this it feels timeless. One of Newton’s pastimes is watching multiple TVs, shown as simultaneously overwhelming and intellectually deadening.
Furthermore this pure, hyper-intelligent being starts by just drinking what to him would be the most precious of substances – water – but he gradually becomes more and more hooked on brain-cell-battering booze. Newton’s increasing intoxication reflects Bowie’s state during filming, although alcohol was not the real Bowie’s drug of choice – that would be cocaine.
In fact Bowie was so coke-addled throughout the film’s shoot that he later said "I didn’t really know what was being made at all."