Friday, August 14, 2009

Movie Notes: The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

Speaking of challenging sci fi movies... It's a bit strange to compare the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth to Star Wars, which was released the following year: the Lucas film is a relatively straightforward and entertaining sci fi adventure aimed primarily at kids, while the second is a somewhat enigmatic bit of social commentary disguised as a sci fi movie aimed squarely at adults. How did filmed sci fi go so quickly from the one to the other predominating?

David Bowie stars in his first acting role as an alien come to earth to retrieve water for his drought-plagued planet. This is an example of perfect casting: Bowie looks a bit like an alien anyway, and his performance is strong. He lands on earth and secures a lawyer, patenting various technologies that make him rich. He falls in love with a local girl and keeps planning to return home, but is eventually brought low by fame, wealth, and something of a television addiction.

The plot doesn't exactly unfold so much as coil around on itself. There's a poetic logic to it that might be too 'experimental' for some. And, for me, it basically falls apart in the third act, along with its protagonist. But, it's worth seeing, if only for the performances and the beguiling visuals. Director Nicholas Roeg has a good sense of striking images; as Pauline Kael wrote, "this is a film of symbols and visions: a white horse running in twilight, a sequence of stars turning to fireworks turning to city lights, water exploding backwards into a lake." The hallucinogenic visuals occur throughout the film and Roeg is able to make even a sleepy Western American town seem... well, alienating.

The Man Who Fell to Earth quickly became a cult classic, and I think it's because it's so weird. It doesn't always work, but there's a lot going on there. As J.G.Ballard was fond of saying, "Earth is the alien planet."


The Pagan Temple said...

I remember Bowie looking like a shell of a man by the end of the movie. He looked so damn frail, humped over like he just wished he could find a place to hide. Strangely, that's all I remember about it, though I did like it. I guess probably because that scene reminds me of the way I feel about half the time.

rufus said...

Oh yeah, he looks like he just got out of Auschwitz in that movie. Of course, by that time, he was getting pretty heavily into cocaine, which you can sort of tell in the movie, but definitely in the music.