THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
Directed by NICOLAS ROEG
Screenplay by PAUL MAYERSBERG
Think of him, classically, as a magus, both a magician and a juggler. Nicolas Roeg is a film maker interested not only in working spells, but in finding new connections between themes and images, keeping ideas spinning in the air like small silver balls, letting them fall in patterns that seem random but are, in fact, precise.
Roeg has made three previous movies, all praised and argued: Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971) and Don't Look Now (1973). Wide popular success continues to elude him, however, perhaps because he is a director who challenges an audience continually. Roeg means to change, or at least radically modify, the way we watch and respond to movies. He was formerly a brilliant cinematographer (Petulia, Far from the Madding Crowd), and images retain primacy in the movies he has directed. He uses little dialogue, intending the meaning of a movie to come clear through what is seen and intuited, not what is spelled out.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, his newest and least successful effort, there is little to spell out anyway. The movie is about equally dazzling and disappointing, but where it goes wrong is in substance, not in style. Roeg's exuberance and invention are compromised here by a yarn that carries dank traces of Twilight Zone.
Dying Planet. David Bowie, rock 'n' roll's self-styled androgyne and master of weirdness, appears, true to form, as an android come to earth in search of water for his drought-ridden planet. He takes the name Thomas Jerome Newton, seeks out a patent attorney named Oliver Farnsworth (nicely played by Buck Henry) and shows him equations for some elementary inventions from his own world. These creationslike self-developing film in fully automatic camerasbecome the foundation of a vast industrial empire run by Farnsworth, who is answerable only to the mysterious, reclusive Newton.
Newton remains part interstellar phantom, part earthbound Howard Hughes. He watches a dozen television sets at once. Newton is also a curiously vulnerable superbeing. He is intrigued by a Southwestern hotel clerk named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), dogged by a curious scientist named Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), whom he eventually hires and who betrays him. Newton plans to use his vast industrial resources to build a spacecraft that will return him to his dying planet, the tiny population of which will then be borne to earth. This idea does not go down well on terra firma. People in high places feel threatened. Newton's mission is aborted; he is imprisoned, marooned, left to wan der the earth like some unclassified space oddity.
The movie is pretty straightforward science fiction with a gloss of social commentary thrown in. This could have been all right: Roeg reworked similarly conventional Daphne du Maurier material into his best movie, Don't Look Now. The Man Who Fell to Earth does not have the personal intensity of the earlier movie nor its daring. Sensing this, perhaps, Roeg and Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg have weighted the slender narrative down with more ideas than it can support: about family structures within different social frameworks and the destruction of innocence by civilization (both explored in Walkabout); about shifting identities and sexual roles (echoes from Performance).