I will not deny that like the rest of the world, I was in complete shock to hear about the death of musical icon David Bowie yesterday. In response to his sad death, my thoughts naturally wondered to his musical legacy, and his music has been on repeat in my head for the last day. However, I also started to think about another one of his legacies, something he isn’t quite as known for, but where he was equally brilliant – his forays into cinema.
Perhaps his most well-known cinematic achievement was in Labyrinth, a beautiful fantasy film. However, this review is not about Labyrinth, but perhaps his greatest performance in the twisted and surreal The Man Who Fell to Earth, from the visionary and underappreciated genius Nicolas Roeg, a science fiction film better than most others. Don’t despair – this review will not be a retrospective on his career, nor will I lament upon his loss, but rather look at this film as it was – a truly wonderful piece of cinema.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a simple but effective story. The titular character is an extraterrestrial from a distant galaxy who lands on Earth to complete a mission of bringing water back to his planet. He adopts the ordinary name of Thomas Jerome Newton (one of several fantastic scientific references scattered throughout the film) and he becomes one of the most influential and wealthy men on the planet, which is surprisingly not explored fully, considering how a more mainstream version of this film would concentrate on that aspect. He creates patents and uses his influence to grow his business, World Enterprises, to become the biggest conglomerate in the world, all leading to his plan to return to his planet with water to feed what remains of his people.
What I think makes The Man Who Fell to Earth so brilliant is how it seamlessly blends genre. It is, first and foremost, a science fiction film. There is not any reason to deny that this is a pure science fiction film – yet there is an almost complete absence of special effects, and the science fiction aspect is played down considerably visually. Instead, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a psychological science fiction film – ideas and concepts of other worlds and other lifeforms in the universe are presented to us through implication and subtle allusions. The audience creates the science fiction of this film in their own minds, and the first act – where it would be natural to include some form of exciting visual effects to captivate the audience – is void of any science fiction tropes or cliches. It is this that allows the brief but memorable reveal of Bowie’s character’s true form so unsettling and disturbing, and becomes one of the most stark and brutally beautiful moments in science fiction cinema history. This revelation – which takes place near the end of the second act (a truly bizarre place to put such a shocking moment) – does not do the natural duty of setting off a series of similarly shocking moments, but rather allows the narrative of the story to drift back into the more calm, implication-driven film that was presented to the audience before, which creates more tension than an actual third-act climax would.
Science fiction films can be the most original and entertaining genre, but they are also most certainly prone to cliche, and most science fiction films follow the same formula of setting up the story in the first act, making a large and shocking revelation or implementing a life-or-death crisis in the second and having a thrilling, tense climax in the third, which culminates in victory, usually. The Man Who Fell to Earth does follow the structure of the first two acts, but does not follow the third, and Roeg is well-aware of the science fiction conventions (some of which only came properly into fruition in the years following this film, which proves The Man Who Fell to Earth to be a film way ahead of its time), by setting up the scene for the third act to be a truly thrilling climax, which would lead to the victorious end of the film. He misleads us, as soon afterwards, Bowie’s character is taken away and his mission fails, and his family dies. What could have possibly been a film that showed a victorious ending to an individual’s mission, where he accomplishes his task and reunites with his people, and where the relationship between Earth and the rest of the universe is explored, The Man Who Fell to Earth instead continues to show something far more sinister and real – human ignorance. In essence, The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, made with a complete absence of actual science fiction.
Not only is The Man Who Fell to Earth a great science fiction film, it is also a majestic drama about the environment and the modern world. Bowie’s character comes from a planet where a natural disaster has caused the deaths of major species, and left his own species with only a few hundred remaining. It is his duty to go to Earth to find water to save the last remaining members of his species. It can be argued that Bowie’s character doesn’t quite come from another planet, but rather from the future. The planet we see him arriving from is our own planet in a few hundred years, ravaged by the problems of global warming and pollution, and that his mission was not to send water to his planet, but rather to send a message to people in government and in the sciences and to the general public that our planet is heading for destruction. The current state of the world revolves around environmental matters having a profound influence on politics and international relations, and a film made exactly forty years ago predicted both the rise in globalization and the increase in environmental issues. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a sublime commentary on the issues facing our world today, and it is perfectly pertinent to what the official factual warnings about the environment state. The Man Who Fell to Earth shows the struggle between industry and environment in a way that is eerily accurate and truly terrifying. Not only did Roeg show his own vision of the world of the future, but it was Walter Tevis, who wrote the book that The Man Who Fell to Earth is based on in 1963, that made this startling prediction about the path the people of Earth are setting themselves down towards, and our inevitable destruction. I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth as a tribute to remember one of the icons of entertainment, but I came away with a profound experience, which alone makes The Man Who Fell to Earth a fantastic and very important film.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is such a great film. I was truly taken aback by the gloriously subtle and nuanced performance Bowie gave. He proved to be far more than just a musical genius, and he is one of the rare exceptions of a musician excelling in cinema, which is not a common occurrence. Bowie attempted acting several more times, and each time, he did very well, and I do believe that his legacy in performance is almost as influential and important as his musical legacy, and it can be said that his acting is not as celebrated as his music because his cinematic legacy is just not as widely seen as his music is widely heard, and I hope everyone that is reading this has a look at The Man Who Fell to Earth, but also his other films as well, which proves that Bowie was a fantastic screen presence. Candy Clark is competent and interesting as Bowie’s conflicted girlfriend, and Rip Torn gives one of his finest early performances as the thoughtful but duplicitous scientist and confidante to Newton.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is wonderful. It is paced, thoughtful and a truly thrilling but also utterly terrifying film. I adored it – it makes some starling statements about the current world, and don’t be surprised to find yourself alert and conflicted after experiencing it. It is truly a fantastic film, and Bowie gives one of the greatest performances of the 1970s, and perhaps of all time. If you can, seek out this film. It is absolutely marvelous, and one of the few films that will truly make you feel some natural and interesting emotions. The resonance of The Man Who Fell to Earth is unlike any other, and it is truly fantastic. Bravo, Mr. Roeg and Mr. Bowie.