David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)


(director: Nicolas Roeg; screenwriters: Paul Mayersberg/based on the Novel by Walter Tevis; cinematographer: Anthony Richmond; editor: Graeme Clifford; music: John Phillips/Stomu Yamashta; cast: David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth), Bernie Casey (Peters), Jackson D. Kane (Prof. Canutti), Tony Mascia (Arthur, chauffeur), Rick Riccardo (Trevor); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael Beeley/Barry Spikings; Anchor Bay; 1976-UK)
“The casting of the androgynous-bent rock-star David Bowie as an alien was inspired.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The cynical sci-fi film has become a cult classic. It’s based on a novel by Walter Tevis and written by Paul Mayersberg, who keeps it both banal and literate. Director Nicolas Roeg (“Performance”/”Walkabout”/”Don’t Look Now”) helms with rich visuals, his usual hipster fractured style of filmmaking and with an imaginative presentation. The overly ambitious sci-fi film, love story and commentary on contemporary America, sometimes sparkles like a jewel until its shine fades a bit with overcharged sex scenes and too much trick photography. Through Roeg’s tricky visual direction there seems to be more here than meets the eye but, again, that depends on the eye of the beholder. What is explored in great detail are the surfaces of a modern society—America as a wasteland, its social and cultural rituals, and the alien’s reactions to a corrupt environment that he eventually becomes corrupted by. One thing is certain, the casting of the androgynous-bent rock-star David Bowie as an alien was inspired (who got the part after Peter O’Toole turned it down).

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is a humanoid alien who falls to Earth in a lake in the western part of the States. He has come to Earth to get water for his drought-stricken planet, leaving behind his wife and children. To make money for his definite purpose of building a spacecraft that will carry both him and the water back home, he sells the many gold wedding rings he brought with him in various spots across the country and uses a British passport to identify himself. After crossing the country, he visits reputable New York patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and through him obtains nine patents on his advanced electrical technology. He makes Farnsworth the CEO of the high-tech company he creates, named World Enterprises, and he becomes the reclusive Howard Hughes-like tycoon behind the scenes pulling the strings. Through this company he tries to obtain the vast fortune he needs to build the spacecraft, which costs over $300 million. The introverted and serene reddish orange-headed alien, seeking a quiet and private life in his visit, lives in a small-town in New Mexico. He learned how Americans think by picking up Earth’s TV signals in his planet and by regularly watching television while visiting. In the process, he becomes a financial tycoon. But in his loneliness he falls in love with a white-trash earthling New Mexico hotel maid, Mary Lou (Candy Clark), instead of moving forward with plans to save his home planet. His plans to built the rocket ship are viewed suspiciously by a shadowy C.I.A.-like group that compromise his bodyguard and chauffeur (Tony Mascia); a curious, womanizing, and untrustworthy far-reaching brilliant chemistry professor, Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), whom he hired to build a fuel carrying system for the spaceship; and his clinging mistress Mary Lou. When the ET becomes enamored with his life on Earth, he loses his innocence and declines into a drunken state and loses his inner discipline and will to leave the Earth.

What the alien encounters upon his visit is the violent nature of human sex, love that’s possessive, a prevailing superficial belief in God that borders on the ridiculous, contemporary pop music that is basically anti-music but appealing to the masses, a consumerist society that wants things it doesn’t need, a need for technological advancement that doesn’t increase one’s inner knowledge, a government that doesn’t trust the people and a realization that people are flawed and in their selfishness cannot be completely trusted and will wantonly harm others. Roeg in his inimical way transforms your usual ET tale into a uniquely colorful kaleidoscope of contemporary America.