Based on a novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth, from director Nicolas Roeg, is a decidedly obscure art film from the ’70s, the kind of movie that critics ooh and ahh over because of the stunning imagery of this and the subtle symbolism of that and the artful juxtaposition of this and that, while my reaction is “Uh, yeah, but this whole thing makes no sense.”
I read later that the version that made it to theaters–which is the version I saw–though still well over two hours long, was chopped up considerably from the original. Some of the obscurity may come from that–perhaps we’re missing scenes that would explain more–but I suspect almost all the obscurity is intentional.
Because the film is striving for a certain artsy style, there is a sacrifice of realism of the events and characters. Not just in the sense that you always need to suspend disbelief in certain respects for a science fiction movie, but more than that.
Not that I can’t discern a bare bones plot (especially after cheating by reading some reviews), but I feel like by attempting to describe the story I’ll be attributing a lot more structure and coherence to it than it really has.
Anyway, as best I can make out, an alien (David Bowie) (who is very close to human in form, and who disguises himself slightly to make himself even closer) travels alone from his planet to Earth, landing in New Mexico. We don’t see the spaceship clearly when it’s in space, but in flashbacks to his home planet it looks kind of like a hut with a sail.
From the television and radio signals the people of his planet were able to pick up from Earth, he has learned enough to be able to pass as an Earthling. For instance, he speaks impeccable English, for some reason with a British accent (well, the reason being it’s David Bowie, but I mean beyond that).
His planet is out of water or running out of water, so his goal is to bring water back from Earth. The spaceship he came in isn’t appropriate for that (if it even still exists; the opening sequence makes it look like he crash landed or landed in the sea), so he needs to make some much bigger, elaborate spaceship or fleet of spaceships, which will require a lot of assistance and material, which means he needs a huge amount of money.
He has a wife and kids at home waiting for the water; it’s not clear if there’s anyone else on his planet.
He uses his knowledge of advanced technology to secure patents on various consumer electronics items, and creates a giant Microsoft-like corporation that makes him unimaginably rich. Mostly he lets other people operate it while he stays in the background, planning how to build what he needs for his mission of bringing water to his planet.
He frankly doesn’t seem all that keen to get back though. That’s sort of because he gets hooked into an Earth life–he gets a girlfriend (Candy Clark), gets used to watching TV all day, becomes something of a lush–but it’s not as if he’s particularly enjoying it. Well, I guess drug addicts aren’t loving every moment of their lifestyle either, but they’re still hooked. And that’s kind of what his life is like. He gradually becomes more slow-thinking and unambitious and useless, like a stoner who lives in his mom’s basement and plays video games all day.
As the movie progresses it gets more and more disjointed and surreal, and it’s entirely possible some or all of it is his or someone’s fantasy. But evidently he builds at least one spaceship, his impending flight causes a big media hullaballoo, and he gets freaked and changes his mind or delays it or something. Meanwhile some combination of his girlfriend and the people running his company and maybe some outsiders manage to squeeze him out and take most of his money.
For awhile he seems to be being held captive in his giant hotel suite, then medical experiments or something are being done on him, but again, some or all of this could be dream sequences.
Many reviewers have praised the movie for showing how out of place the alien would be, how hard it would be for him to adjust to Earth ways, and how bizarre one would act who learned about Earth life solely through television and radio. I found just the opposite to be true. I was struck by how his mannerisms, facial expressions, tone of voice, lovemaking style, etc. are so conventional for a human. True, he seems unaware or only vaguely aware what effect alcohol has, and he’s evidently at least somewhat naive about how to run a business without being fleeced, but are those really the things it would be hardest to pick up from television and radio, while being able to impersonate almost everything else about a human down to the smallest nuance?
I think after the fact you can kind of make sense of some of the emotional, psychological elements of the film–his lessening urgency to bring water back to his planet, his girlfriend’s going back and forth between supporting him and being spooked by him and at least partly cooperating with the people cheating him, etc.–but that again may be my imposing a coherence on the material that isn’t there. Because at the time, for a lot of the scenes I was just shaking my head not knowing why the characters were saying what they were saying, doing what they were doing, and evincing the emotions they were evincing.
Bowie the alien is intelligent but unsophisticated for the most part. He’s gentle and soft, but I don’t know that I would say kind except in sort of a superficial politeness way. One of the more interesting lines in the movie to me is when he is asked if he isn’t bitter and angry with the people who misused him, and he responds matter-of-factly “I can’t be angry with anyone,” sounding like he means that as a literal statement about the emotional make up of the members of his species.
In general he seems emotionally flat. He has maybe 20% of the negative emotions one would expect (or at least keeps them inside), except that he can get a little irritable when drunk, and he has maybe 40% of the expected positive emotions. For instance, it’s just not clear how much he genuinely feels for his girlfriend, or for his wife and kids back on his planet.
I’d like to have seen that explored a little more, or a little better.
The many sex scenes are shot in an interestingly unconventional, surreal way, not like mainstream movies and not like pornographic movies, though perhaps not too far from the norm of a certain style of art house movie from that era. I don’t know that they’re more explicit than a standard R-rated movie, but maybe just differently explicit.
Overall, I’m certainly not surprised this movie is very highly regarded by a certain type of filmgoer and critic. It’s ambitious, it’s unconventional, it does demand one’s attention in certain ways. And there are elements to it that drew me in, especially trying to psychologically understand the alien better.
But I don’t have nearly as much tolerance as some folks for intentionally obscure movies. I was too bored and certainly too confused too often to be able to recommend this movie.