It’s the mid ’70s. You’re Nicolas Roeg. You’re casting for the lead in your adaptation of a novel about a peculiar, sexually charged, super-intelligent spaceman (‘Thomas Newton’) visiting Earth to seek water for his drought-parched homeworld. David Bowie says he’s interested... That’s David Bowie. Shapeshifting monarch of rock, fresh from the triumphant farewell performance of his latest alter ego: a peculiar, sexually charged, super-intelligent spaceman (‘Ziggy Stardust’). Who else are y’gonna call? Dennis Hopper?
As Roeg explains in his cosy, rambling interview, “He just was the man who fell to Earth. I always try to get the self-conscious ‘performance’ out of actors. Bowie understood that perfectly.”
That’s what makes The Man Who Fell To Earth so captivating: it’s impossible to tell where Newton ends and Bowie begins. Roeg captures Thin White Duke-era Dave “at the height of his beauty”. The figure he cuts is gentle, serene and aloof. “He looked like he was from another planet,” says co-star Candy Clark in the Making Of doc. “So it was easy to pretend he was.”
So, Newton splashes down and, with an armful of alien tech, procures patent lawyer Oliver (Buck Henry, eyes swimming behind bottle-bottom goggle-specs) and partners up with Rip Torn’s sex-crazed fuel technician. Clark’s sly and sexy turn as dimbo lift operator Mary-Lou sounds a note of rare warmth, as she introduces Newton to mortal delights – fashion, religion, booze, TV and, of course, sex (typical Roeg: spiky and sparring). But the hasty humanisation spins him out and, as his Earthbound followers age and decay, Newton’s mission – and secret identity – grows ever more brittle...
The Man Who Fell To Earth crowned Roeg as the heir to ’60s time-tweaking experimental mentalists like Godard and Resnais. He weaves a kaleidoscopic tapestry of flaring colours and nervy cross-cuts (blossoming firework-flash; leaky-lens psychedelia; scarlet sun-glare). Although we see brief, story-settling glimpses of Newton’s family plodding around his arid planet (in what turns out to be a spooky foreshadow of Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ vid), Roeg is more interested in the essential oddness of Earthly tanglings than in delivering some kind of FX-bloated environmental alert.
So, is the resulting film a metaphysical riddle? Eternal-youth fantasy/horror? Jesus allegory? Most likely, Roeg is just being mischievous. TMWFTE plays cutest as a quiet rage against the faults of life in modern America, with a refined (European) visitor swallowed by sensual excess and crumbling from proud to cowed (“I think,” offers a waiter to a drunken Newton’s dinner partner, “he’s had enough...”).
Sci-fi spook Philip K Dick was obsessed with The Man Who Fell To Earth. He felt that Bowie was trying to send him personal, esoteric messages via microscopic quirks of performance. He was mad, obviously. But squint a little and you can sort of see what he means.