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It requires an almost courageous leap of the imagination to take Nicholas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" seriously. Here's a film so preposterous and posturing, so filled with gaps of logic and continuity, that if it weren't so solemn there'd be the temptation to laugh aloud. And yet, at the same time, this is a film filled with interesting ideas -- it's like a bunch of tentative sketches for a more assured film that was never made.
Its genre is science fiction, but I doubt sophisticated sci-fi followers would find it fresh or interesting. Roeg gives us still another version of the alien visitor from outer space. This time the visitor is David Bowie, pale and wan, making a crash landing in a southwestern lake. He knows English, has a British passport, raises a small fortune by selling gold rings and then makes a gigantic fortune by merchandising several unique inventions from his home planet ("You'll be taking on RCA, Kodak and Xerox!" a lawyer gasps.) He wants to use the money to save his planet.
Roeg provides flashbacks to suggest some of the details of Bowie's home planet. It's very dry and desolate. Apparently, only a single family survives - at least, the only beings we see are Bowie, his wife and two children. They wear plastic suits to conserve precious bodily fluids. Bowie has built a spacecraft that looks, so help me, like a hunting lodge with wings. But since the craft remains behind after he's gone, maybe it's just a teleporter. In that case, what was it we saw hurtling through the atmosphere in the opening scene?
Such questions aside (and there's nothing more frustrating than asking logical questions about a movie that insists on being visionary), "The Man Who Fell to Earth" becomes the story of Bowie's gradual disintegration. At first, his fall is metaphysical, as he finds contact with our society to be profoundly unsettling. Toward the end, his fall is literal; after a cheerful and simpleminded young girl (Candy Clark) introduces him to the joys of gin and tonic, he can never quite get organized enough to return home and save his civilization.
The movie is weird in its juxtapositions of the banal and the metaphysical. Gin and tonic vs. world saving is just one example; there's also the business of Bowie's inventions, including a film that develops itself (the camera comes free). Absolutely nothing in the film's presentation of Bowie's desert planet - an arid wasteland - suggests a society even vaguely interested in driving Polaroid out of business.
Still, there are a few things in this strange film that are really very good; Roeg is an interesting and sometimes brilliant director whose "Walkabout" and "Don't Look Now" were considerable accomplishments. The development of the love relationship between the alien and the simple young girl, for example, is accomplished rather well. Bowie approaches it in a laconic fashion (his performance flirts with the catatonic), but Candy Clark cares about this wretched refugee in a way that's open, naive and touching.
There's also an interesting relationship, lightly sketched in, between Buck Henry (as the president of Bowie's business ventures) and Chicago actor Ric Riccardo. The suggestion of affection and caring here is, once again, a nice contrast to the Bowie character's inexorable dropping-out act.
The film's cinematography is sensational at times; as he did in "Don't Look Now," Roeg once again presents sex scenes spectacularly intercut with contrasting, contradictory material (one of the breakups is done as counterpoint to "The Third Man"). "The Man Who Fell to Earth" was apparently at least 30 minutes longer in its British version. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe the connections and the structure worked better in Roeg's original cut. But what we have here are pieces of a vast, ambitious, complex conception. Some of the pieces are, in themselves, so very good that we really regret they don't fit together.
David Bowie as Newton
Candy Clark as Mary Lou
Buck Henry as Oliver Farnsworth
Rip Torn as Nathan Bryce