Original release: March 18th, 1976
Re-release (UK): June 15th, 2012
Running time: 139 minutes
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writers: Paul Mayersberg, Walter Tevis (novel)
Cast: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark
For the best part of my childhood I always assumed there was something otherworldly about David Bowie. As the Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986), his androgyny fascinated me, I just couldn’t tell either way what this being was. It terrified my parents and they tried to outlaw anything Bowie-related in case it might influence me in being some way “different”.
Despite this ban, it was impossible to filter out MTV completely and fragments of Space Oddity, Ashes To Ashes, and Ziggy Stardust petered through, only serving to solidify the idea Bowie couldn’t be from here, but somewhere far, far away.
After seeing The Man Who Fell To Earth, I was not only awestruck, but even more convinced than ever before by this idea.
Music artists who cross over into film tend to play extensions of themselves. It’s evident with Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957) and then in the 80’s with Prince in Purple Rain (1984), Madonna in Desperately Susan (1985) and Michael Jackson in Moonwalker (1988).
However, in The Man Who Fell To Earth, rather than Bowie’s character catering to the idea of how fame, power and wealth feeds a larger-than-life persona, we see how it ultimately destroys it.
Based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, it tells the story of an alien (David Bowie) who arrives on Earth in search of water to take back to his home planet Anthea,. He gives himself the name Thomas Jerome Newton, and armed with knowledge of his planet’s advanced technology, he sets about making a fortune for himself to fund the building of his ship, with the help of a patent attorney.
Along the way, Thomas meets hotel worker Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to things on Earth he probably would never have encountered without her; church, alcohol, sex, television and music. He begins to lose interest in his mission to save his drought ridden planet, and by the time the government get their hands on him, he’s become as jaded as the humans around him.
The Man Who Fell To Earth, although it’s sparse on special effects for a science fiction film, is a story as epic as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in that they’re both timeless, poetic and haunting pieces which reflect on the paradoxical nature of being human.
It’s also a film which plays heavily with imagery, themes and subtexts. Thomas, fresh from his arrival on Earth, is fascinated and then tormented by anything to do with liquids; the lake, alcohol, bodily fluids, even the moment he throws up in his hotel room after passing out from a ride in an elevator…Thomas is a “fish out of water” in every way possible. Even the suit he wears on Anthea is partly made out of liquid on the outside.
In one of the film’s many poignant scenes, Thomas observes the value of television and comments:
Despite it feeling rather slow in places, Bowie’s enigmatic presence and out-of-this-world persona add much to his performance as he looks at the world with his alien eyes, not understanding what he sees. Thomas, although starting off with great ambition, gradually falls from grace and becomes a terrible failure, sucked in by the monotony of television and drowning his sorrows in the readily available liquids on offer.
It’s a fascinating film, but one which also requires patience and after-thought, especially as it reflects on how we might be perceived as a species by someone who’s not quite from around here.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .