The Man in question is David Bowie, extremely famous several times over by then, yet still arguably about as close to a space alien as a famous person can get. He falls to Honeyville, New Mexico, which is, strictly speaking, Earth, though it certainly seems like one of Western civilization’s weirder outposts. The film’s director is the great Nicolas Roeg, who already had a masterpiece or three under his belt (Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now), as well as some substantial industry cred and star magnetism, despite the fact that his films were audaciously adventurous with form and occasionally baffling in content. (This was the 1970s.) So don’t look too surprised if The Man Who Fell to Earth leaves you feeling a little lost in space. It is indeed far out. Some might say too far. Every time Rip Torn turns up in the film he has this look on his face that seems to say, “What the fuck am I doing here?” It’s a fair question.
Soft-spoken, elfin-bodied Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) turns up one day with flaming orange hair, a British passport and a handful of enormously valuable patents. He finds himself a good patent lawyer (Buck Henry) and a brilliant scientific consultant (Torn) and starts up a massive global communications corporation—but what he really wants is just water, a glass here, an ocean there. His home planet has been suffering a massive drought, his own family is dying from lack of H2O, and he’s heard that Earth is swimming in the stuff. So he sets up shop, trying to develop a long-term project. Really, really long-term. People around him get old as it goes along. He takes up with a chambermaid (Candy Clark). He settles in, makes himself a life on Earth, develops a dependency on the booze. But does he ever really become one of us? Can he? Would he want to?
Plot and backstory are both far clearer in Walter Tevis’ eponymous source novel than they are in Roeg’s film, which was scripted by Paul Mayersberg. What Roeg seems primarily interested in with The Man Who Fell to Earth is Newton’s prolonged fish-out-of-water experience of our world, which through Newton’s eyes looks far weirder and more sinister than anything glimpsed in the brief flashbacks to Newton’s extraterrestrial, dune-traversing past. Though not quite as overtly, apocalyptically condemning a portrait of the modern materialist world as what was on display in Walkabout, the television culture, abuse of alcohol, gun accessibility, general ugliness and casual consumerism on display in this film is, in its way, pretty alienating. But then so is the insistent vagueness of the dialogue. (“What are they like, your children?” “They’re like children. Exactly like children.”) So is the poor man’s Pink Floyd soundtrack. And so is the film’s meandering nature. So much of what made Roeg’s previous films (and some of his later ones) so sensorially rich can be found in the colours, montage, sound design and inspired ellipses of The Man Who Fell to Earth—no one else could have made it. Yet it lacks the urgency, the sustained energy and, more satirical than genuinely insightful, the depth those other films have. Still very much worth a visit, this Man may leave you longing for other, warmer planets.