At the highest point of his career, maverick filmmaker Nicholas Roeg decided to take his potent mixture of Godardian editing and Hitchcockian suspense and apply it to the science fiction genre. With the jump cuts, the jigsaw like structure and a naturalistic style still intact, Roeg told the very humanistic story of an alien who visits earth looking for a way to save his home planet from a destructive drought. Approaching the science fiction genre from such an overt auterist perspective in the seventies was a bold move to say the least but the weird doesn’t end there because The Man Who Fell to Earth incorporates elements of the western, grandiose romance drama and political thriller into its already audacious world.
Over time it has been described as “incomprehensible” by some critics whilst Roeg himself has described the film’s narrative machinations as “taking away the crutch of time” and you can see how this would alienate (excuse the pun) the audience upon first viewing of the film. Although modern viewers will read blurbs to gain a quick understanding of any film’s plot points, many critics would not have had this perceived luxury so the purposefully obtuse nature of Roeg’s direction must have been incredibly frustrating, an example being that the motives of the main character are not actually divulged in the first 90 minutes of the film even though we follow him through almost every scene.
Frustrations aside and story pinned down beforehand, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a pretty successful piece of work. It is daring and full of surprises, the precocious, fragmented style bringing meaning to the story. Huge swathes of time can pass in the blink of an eye and Roeg issues a challenge to his audience to piece it all together. At the center of the film is a spellbinding, reserved performance from David Bowie in his first major screen role and his androgynous, iconic look lends itself perfectly to the character of an alien disguised as a human. The performance is especially impressive as it must have been such a maddening experience for all the actors involved. Bowie has been quoted as saying that he thought the film was a love story and Rip Torn that he imagined the film as an espionage thriller but maybe the films biggest weakness is the difficulty one has on actually trying to describe it, not the difficulty of actually following the story, as many suggest.
There are also some strikingly beautiful moments in the film too as stars explode into city lights and sunrises are captured with a moody intensity unseen in too much of Roeg’s previous work. There is a brightness here, a pop sensibility missing from his other classics of the period, Bad Timing or Don’t Look Now for instance, and the film’s aesthetics manage to stay fresh and watchable right until the very end. And of course it would not be Roeg without those naturalistic, montage-addled sex scenes peppered throughout the film. If nothing else, Roeg knows how to shoot the fully naked body of a human being in a unique and quite stunning fashion.
For no particular reason other than clumsy writing and pacing problems, the film does drift away from any integral message and sort of dies out in the final third. The political analogies the film brings up during this portion of the film are far less interesting than Roeg’s comments on consumerism and our tendency to be more alien than we believe ourselves to be so we’re left with not a lot to hang onto. However, the very final scene with the proclamation from our alien visitor that “We’d have probably done the same to you had you come round our place” is both chillingly effective and achingly sad in equal measure, a wonderful coda to a memorable film.
A new restored version of The Man Who Fell to Earth returned to cinemas on September 9th and will be available to buy on Blu-ray from October 24th in a beautiful 40th anniversary edition.