As the credits began to roll over the head of a passed out Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) I sat bewildered at what I had just witnessed. Though my anticipation was high, after all this was the film that Under the Skin – one of my favourite films of TIFF last year-was frequently compared to, I was not at all prepared for Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. I went in expecting something akin to the stark and cold world that the alluring seductress of Jonathan Glazer’s science fiction tale inhabited. What I got was completely different. A film that was as strange and inexplicably fascinating as the pale alien at the centre of it.
While the premise of a being from outer space coming to earth is the same, Roeg’s intricate examination of human existence offers a vastly different outlook than that of Glazer’s opus. Humanity is not a desire to covet, but rather a thing to dread. It is an endless torturous voyage without ports to jump off at. In the final scene when an inebriated Newton admits to Dr. Nathan Bryce that he has indeed “had enough”, it is not the gin and tonic in front of him that he is referring to.
The interesting thing about Roeg’s film is that, while the themes may be bleak, the film is a vibrant collage of ideas and visuals. Similar to a well worn poncho whose loose wayward strands threaten to pull it apart, The Man Who Fell to Earth always feels like it is close to unraveling at the slightest tug. Based on the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, the film follows a humanoid alien (Bowie’s Newton) as he comes to earth on a mission to get water for his dying planet. With only a British passport and a ring to his name, Newton uses the advanced technology of his species to turn his start-up tech company on Earth into a billion dollar industry.
Not succumbing to the lure of fame and fortune, Newton remains steadfast to his ultimate goal of building a spaceship and saving his family. Of course this all changes once he discovers the soothing taste of gin and tonic. The presence of sweet natured Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), whose unconditional love goes unrequited, also presents a pleasant distraction for Newton. Introducing him to various aspects of American life, including television, church, alcohol and most importantly sex, Mary-Lou inadvertently becomes his gateway to the sloth-like lifestyle of human existence. So much so that Newton, through a series of events, becomes a prisoner in his own New Mexico home.
Though The Man Who Fell to Earth forces us to consider whether or not Newton will ever return home, it becomes clear that the question really is how much does Newton want to? There is both a sense of energy and a laid back tone that is constantly at odds within Newton and the film as a whole. Roeg’s film at times feels more like an exercise in form and structure than it does a cohesive tale. One minute he presents a contemplative shot of the American landscape and the souls who once lived within it, the next he is showing Newton’s car travelling down the road as bluegrass music plays jubilantly in the background. It is abrupt moments like this where I was left to contemplate what type of film The Man Who Fell to Earth really is? Is it a thought-provoking science fiction film? A warning about becoming complacent in a television obsessed society? A commentary on gender and sex that is at times both silly and brutally honest? Or something more profound that cannot be truly uncovered in one viewing?
I am still not quite sure what the answer is, but I feel it is a little bit of all of those things.
As fascinating as Roeg’s juxtapositions in the film are, especially the way he contrasts feverish sexual imagery with banal moments, take Newton being sick in bed for example, it is the relationship between Mary-Lou and Newton that drew me in the most. The unconventional heart and soul of the film, Mary-Lou is often treated like a simpleminded puppy. Despite being equally enamoured and terrified by Newton, she does not hesitate to run back to him the minute he requests for her. Their final sexual encounter is vigorous and unemotional at the same time. It expertly signifies the years of disconnect that has always existed between them.
There is something about their bond that is subtly powerful. Without this relationship, the images of Newton’s family – which are sparse to begin with – would carry no weight whatsoever. Mary-Lou’s need to make Newton fall in love with her is similar to my desire to truly connect with this film. While I was intrigued and constantly looking to connect on a deeper level, The Man Who Fell to Earth always kept a certain distance that I could never completely cross. However, it still lingers in my mind like a hangover that I cannot quite shake. Like Mary-Lou, I know I will ultimately go back to this world unable to truly explain why.
For all its artistic splendor and interesting performances, The Man Who Fell to Earth truly blindsided me. It is a film full of ideas that I find myself still trying to sort through several days after viewing it. While it did not hit me with the same punch as Under the Skin, I know I will be stepping in the ring again with this film soon.