Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)



          The Man Who Fell to Earth is arguably the climax of the downbeat sci-fi cycle that began with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), because a year after The Man Who Fell to Earth was released, George LucasStar Wars steered the sci-fi genre back toward lighthearted escapism. Every frame of The Man Who Fell to Earth is depressing and weird, and the film presents a brutally nihilistic statement about the depravity of mankind: Over the course of the picture, an alien filled with noble purpose gets sidetracked by the earthly pleasures of alcohol, sex, and television, eventually becoming a desiccated shell of his former self and the cause of his home planet’s likely ruination. Nicholas Roeg, the cinematographer-turned-filmmaker who spent the first decade of his directorial career exploring bizarre intersections between alienation and carnal desire, takes The Man Who Fell to Earth into some very strange places via surrealistic images and sounds. Furthermore, singer David Bowie, who was cast in the leading role at the apex of his androgynous rock-god reign, delivers a performance so detached that he really does seem like a visitor from another planet.
          Working with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, Roeg adapted this picture from a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, best known for telling the story of fictional pool player “Fast” Eddie Felson in his novels The Hustler (1959) and The Color of Money (1984)—go figure. The story concerns one Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), an alien who travels to Earth because his own planet is suffering a drought. With an eye toward buying materials for a spaceship that can transport water back to his world, Thomas uses his space-age knowledge to create inventions that make him super-wealthy. However, he gets distracted when he meets a small-town hotel employee named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), and they embark on a romantic relationship. Soon, Thomas becomes mired in drinking and screwing, so he doesn’t notice that one of his underlings, Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), has discovered Thomas’ true identity. Nathan tells the government about Thomas just before Thomas tries to launch his spaceship, so government agents nab Thomas and secure him in a prison cell for experimentation and interrogation. That’s when the story gets really twisted, but the bummer events in the second half of the picture shouldn’t be spoiled.
          Aside from the inherently odd story and Bowie’s ethereal acting (the singer has acknowledged he was coked out of his mind during the whole production), what makes The Man Who Fell to Earth so peculiar is Roeg’s avoidance of conventional storytelling tools. Roeg obscures time relationships between scenes, so we experience the movie in as much of a blur as the characters; additionally, Roeg leaves several major story points unexplained. In fact, the very texture of the picture adds to this disorienting effect. Roeg uses heavy filters and other forms of visual distortion to heighten the strangeness of scenes, and jumpy editing creates an odd rhythm in which, say, a straightforward dialogue exchange might be juxtaposed with a phantasmagoric montage. Roeg also fills the screen with nudity and raw sex scenes, frequently jolting viewers into did-I-just-see-that reactions. Whether all of this gimmickry accentuates the story’s themes—or whether it’s all just impossibly pretentious—is a call for each individual viewer to make. What’s not open to debate is that The Man Who Fell to Earth is unlike any other sci-fi picture of the same era.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: FREAKY

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