Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg adapted Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth twice, possibly because the first time he fucked it up. Or, rather, because Director Nicolas Roeg fucked it up. Standard sci-fi piffle, it concerns an alien who, hoping to save his family from their dying home, uses alien technology to amass a fortune, only to be undone by, among other factors, alcoholism. (It would be glib to read this as AA tract, but also not inaccurate.) Mayersberg’s second go at this material, for TV a decade later, would be more conventional. But Roeg’s version, first released in 1976, made tasty mincemeat of this thin tale, turning it into an epic art film that favors visual richness over narrative coherence.
The main attraction, as it was 35 years ago, is David Bowie, making his screen debut as a lanky, pale-skinned, British-accented alien who looks like Tilda Swinton and is able to rake in mass riches with little effort. It’s perfect casting, although Roeg originally wanted Michael Crichton, due to his absurd height (6-foot-9). But Bowie’s artistic contributions are minimal. He’s not used as an actor so much as a presence: David Bowie, icon. Even the score is not his.
This leaves Roeg as the author, and he creates a film that seems to portray experience as through the senses of alien, or a mega-celebrity, or a tourist. He shoots with a combination of crazy zooms, tight cinemascope frames and hyper-cuts which relentlessly throttle us around the narrative and time and space. Huge time leaps occur without announcement, with Bowie’s confidants—Southern-fried fuck buddy Candy Clark, randy scientist Rip Torn, Coke-bottle spectacled lawyer Buck Henry—suddenly gaining gray hair and questionable old age makeup, all while Bowie remains forever 1976 Bowie. It’s a mess, but the kind of mess that goes to unexplored areas, and is open to odd touches, such as an incredible moment early in where Buck Henry blows a tiny bubble off his tongue. (Perhaps you’ll just have to see it.) The Man Who Fell to Earth may be dense without being particularly deep, but it’s still dense.