A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

This is a film that could only have been made in the mid-1970s, when people with a lot of money were looking for the Next Big Hit aimed at the youth market. And what could be better than a sci-fi film featuring a major rock star, lots of sex, and an irreverent attitude toward American corporations? Four years later, this anything-goes approach to filmmaking would expire with the colossal failure of Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), now known as the movie that killed United Artists. But we can see in The Man Who Fell to Earth a bit of the carelessness (some of it fueled by too-easy access to drugs) that afflicted the film industry. It is frequently brilliant but also often frequently incoherent, a movie held together by David Bowie's charisma as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, even though Bowie later admitted that he was so high on cocaine during the filming that he didn't know what he was doing. In the film, as the titular alien, he gets hooked on gin and television, so his drug indulgence may have helped in his performance. Somehow Roeg pulled through a difficult shoot in New Mexico, and while the movie never quite succeeds as either science fiction or satire, it became a cult hit. None of the other cast members stands out as prominently as Bowie. Rip Torn doesn't put together a coherent character as Nathan Bryce, the lecherous college professor who gets hired on by the mega-corporation created by Newton so he can bring water to his dying home planet. Candy Clark plays Mary-Lou, the hotel maid who becomes Newton's lover, has some affecting moments, but it's never clear whether she is extraordinarily naive or under a kind of mind control induced by Newton. But there's an intelligence (or at least an attitude) here that makes more coherent and better polished films about alien visitors look tame and conventional.