Nic Roeg's brilliant and mad sci-fi is back in cinemas as part of StudioCanal’s five-film Made in Britain season.
Forget Jareth the Goblin King or his cameo in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, David Bowie’s most perfect screen role was also his first, as an implacable, glassy-eyed humanoid visitor looking to save his home planet from imminent destruction.
Just as he did with Mick Jagger in Performance and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing, one of Britain’s greatest living directors, Nicolas Roeg, managed to funnel Bowie’s palpable dearth of acting ability into the confines character he’s playing, and so all of his flat line-readings, non-sequiturs and ghostly interactions with his fellow cast members actually bolster the film’s otherworldly atmosphere.
Based on the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis and adapted to the screen by ace scribe, Paul Mayersberg, Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an auburn-haired stringbean who plummets to Earth in the hope of transporting water back to his parched home planet.
Hooking up with Rip Torn’s fuel scientist having made incredible amounts of cash from patenting some of his advanced alien technology, Newton’s simple, E.T.-like mission is swiftly dashed by vice, greed, sex, corruption and oceans of free-flowing alcohol. Thus it’s the alien who is eventually alienated.
As much a scabrous corporate satire as it is psychotropic sci-fi odyssey, Roeg piles on all his old tricks such as crash zooms, stroboscopic edits, overlapping soundtrack and an explicit, soft-focus sex scene in an attempt to revitalise a stale genre.
While this film has its admirers, Roeg doesn’t quite manage to pull of the same magnificent balancing act that did with such temporal-shifting masterworks as Don’t Look Now and Bad Timing. There’s lots of strange, colorful longeurs between scenes which for one viewer may seem like visceral and poetic evocations of the shifting American landscape, while to another will seem like arty padding.
And yet, looking back at the film now, re-released in cinemas and on Blu-ray as part of StudioCanal’s five-film Made in Britain season, you could see Newton as the embodiment of Roeg himself. Initially celebrated as a visionary, though gradually worn down by the idiocy, greed and complacency of others, Roeg is a director for whom it has become tougher and tougher to get films off the ground.
While some of his less well known '80s films, such as Eureka and Insignificance are up there with his best work, you feel that his fall from grace is a result of his stoical unwillingness to yield to the corrupting demands of the market.
Roeg's films really need to be experienced on the big screen.
Still as mad and brilliantly infuriating as ever.
They don't make 'em like that any more…