The Man Who Fell to Earth (Rialto Pictures, NR)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is an extremely stylized film and for that reason doesn’t seem dated.

If the summer’s cinematic offerings have left you jaded by a succession of loud, expensive, and brain-dead films, you owe it to yourself to check out a science fiction cult classic now celebrating its 35th anniversary: Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s a real fever dream of a film loaded with intense images and symbols whose greatest merit may be that it leaves you free to decide for yourself what it all means.
Based on a novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth stars David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, a space alien who arrives on earth to procure water for his parched home planet of Anthea. Newton’s home may be suffering from drought but, intellectually and technologically, it’s far more advanced than ,Earth and he funds his mercantile venture by obtaining patents for several inventions which seem marvelous to earthlings (one is for a camera which also develops film more or less instantaneously). He’s aided in this process by patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), who sports a pair of glasses with Coke-bottle lenses and is presented, quite matter-of-factly, as a gay man.
Despite being amply supplied with cash, Newton has some problems adjusting to life on Earth. Unused to terrestrial gravity, he collapses in an elevator and has to be carried to his room by a sweet but none too bright elevator operator (Candy Clark) who becomes his lover and introduces him to earthly rituals such as drinking alcohol and attending church. The pleasures of American life soon overpower Newton’s sense of responsibility to his family and home planet, which we see through his consciousness as a band of white-clad wanderers in a desolate landscape.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is an extremely stylized film and for that reason doesn’t seem dated. The cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond still looks fantastic and Bowie’s androgynous screen presence is never less than fascinating. As in all good science fiction, the fantastic inventions of Paul Mayersberg’s screenplay aren’t there for their own sake, but to provoke thought about the world in which we live. In truth, it’s not always clear what Roeg is trying to say, but what he puts up on the screen is always interesting, and there’s so much in this film that it can easily support a multiplicity of interpretations.
Beyond the obvious cultural/political targets (American materialism and greed, distrust of anything that seems different), there’s a more basic theme: that of a stranger who must find his way in a strange land. What’s unusual about this version of that classic trope is that the stranger adapts perhaps too well, becoming distracted by earthly pleasures while the situation on his home planet becomes increasingly desperate.
If you’re one of those people who prefer to abstain from interpretation while letting the film wash over you, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, including distinctive cinematography, paradoxical and disruptive use of sound, and unusual plot elements. Not only is there the unfussy depiction of a gay character (and remember, this is a 1976 film based on a 1963 novel), but also the frank presentation of rough sex between university professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) and his squeeze of the moment. And did I mention that you get to see a fair amount of Bowie and Clark with their clothes off? | Sarah Boslaugh

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