It’s one of those curious quirks of fate that the year of David Bowie’s death would align so neatly with major anniversaries of a few of his most notable cinematic works. We’ve already had the 30th anniversaries of both Labyrinth and the underrated Absolute Beginners, and we can no doubt expect people to make a bit of a fuss over The Prestige, released ten years ago this autumn. For now though, it’s the turn of Nicolas Roeg’s seminal sci-fi flick The Man Who Fell to Earth, first released back in 1976.
Adapted from Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, the film stars Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to Earth and uses his knowledge to found a leading technology company, all with the aim of building a spaceship and using our water to save his planet from a drought. Along the way he falls in love with hotel worker Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) and befriends chemist Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn).
The premise may suggest either a suspenseful sci-fi mystery or a star-crossed lovers romance, but Roeg’s film (following the novel) is more interested in the twin temptations of sex and alcohol that face Newton, slowly giving in to the twin vices as he struggles to adapt to human life. Roeg shows the same talent for filming genuinely intimate sex that made Don’t Look Now (in)famous, but here it takes a darker edge, less often a display of love than an escape from life or a drunken fumble.
The film is enjoying a brand new 4K restoration (in the works since before Bowie’s death) and the film’s visuals are sumptuous and inventive, not least the brief glimpses at a striking alien world. Strong as the visuals are, the film is a slightly disjointed affair, the cryptic narrative moving in jumps and starts and leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. It’s at times frustrating, and the film never quite comes together as a cohesive whole, even if it boasts moments of unquestionable beauty.
Above all though, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a showcase for Bowie. Across a cinematic career almost as varied as his musical one, his debut role is rightly one of his most iconic. It’s Bowie at his most alien, and perversely his most human, showcasing a vulnerability not seen in many of his later roles.
Words by Dominic Preston
The Man Who Fell to Earth returns to cinemas this week, before a DVD and Blu-ray release on October 24th.