In Memoriam: David Bowie - The Man Who Fell To Earth Reviewed

david bowie
Andrew looks back at the late David Bowie's acting debut, The Man Who Fell to Earth

david bowie
With the recent news of legendary rock star David Bowie's passing, I immediately felt in my sadness compelled to talk about the science fiction motion picture which immortalized Mr. Bowie on film for the very first time, the great British director Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth.  The story of an extraterrestrial in human disguise who visits our planet on a mission to ferry a water reservoir to his drought stricken planet only to lose sight of his mission as he succumbs to the vagaries and vices of contemporary human life remains a pivotal benchmark in intellectual science fiction cinema.  Less of a straightforward narrative than a backdrop for meditation on human sexuality, materialism, avarice, alcoholism and finally depression, The Man Who Fell to Earth, like Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is designed to show how strange our Earth really is and the process of an alien gradually becoming human and in so doing losing their own sense of identity.  Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, the enduring and timeless allegory for what Roger Waters termed 'alcohol soft middle-age' is that rare union of a great story, a great director and ultimately the casting of the only man who could have played the role of the ill-fated interstellar visitor, David Bowie.

After the success of Roeg's 1973 horror thriller Don't Look Now, he secured the rights to The Man Who Fell to Earth with future The Deer Hunter producers Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley for around $1.5 million.  While something of a difficult shoot with technical snafus including film cameras jamming, food poisoning, tangling with Hell's Angels for a desert sequence and Bowie's own admission he was heavily addicted to cocaine during production, everything fell into place perfectly with arguably Bowie's definitive acting performance.  Though in later years Bowie would prove to be a fine English actor in films like Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence, Christiane F, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and The Prestige, it's ironically Bowie's cocaine addled disorientation which contributed to his eccentric, alienated performance of entrepreneur/alien in disguise Thomas Jerome Newton.  From his androgynous appearance, anisocoria dilated eyes, bright red hair and lanky figure, the radical glam rocker seems destined to play Mr. Newton.  Equally strong are supporting performances by Rip Torn as Dr. Nathan Bryce, an elderly teacher in mid-life crisis who becomes ensconced in Mr. Newton's story, screenwriter and director Buck Henry as Mr. Newton's manager Oliver Farnsworth and Candy Clark as Mary-Lou, the one woman Mr. Newton forms a relationship with until she sees the man behind the mask.  

david bowie
The real star of the show, of course, is Nicolas Roeg in an intensely difficult auteur-driven narrative where through editing and lush widescreen cinematography creates a psychological alien mindscape with no sense of time and abrupt shifts in space, tone and reality itself.  With it's psychedelic soundtrack by John Phillips, a cacophony of jazz and synthesizers and the film's own blend of otherworldly sound effects, through and through everything we're seeing and hearing is being filtered through the prism of Mr. Newton's extraterrestrial worldview.  

Something of a precursor to the fragmented narratives of Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Drive, it's a deliberately confusing narrative tool that you will not pick up on the first time around.  Like any great film, it is confounding, taxing and requires more than one visit to really ascertain it's meaning.  Roeg's confident direction and own experience as a cinematographer make The Man Who Fell to Earth a singularly visually striking work with timeless images and brilliant juxtapositions in the editing room.  Word has it the first cut of the film in the United States excised over 20 minutes of crucial scenes from the film to avoid an X rating, thus ruining the carefully arranged framework of Roeg's abstract narrative structure.  For a short time the Criterion Collection released a director-approved DVD and Blu-Ray of the original European cut but it has since gone out of print.  A shame as the passing of Mr. Bowie will not doubt rekindle renewed interest in what is possibly Mr. Roeg's greatest cinematic achievement, a timeless work of art that uses an alien to tell us more about ourselves than any fellow human ever could.

R.I.P. Mr. Bowie. 


- Andrew Kotwicki