If The Witches is Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, and Don’t
Look Now is the film that he will be remembered by, then The Man Who Fell To
Earth is his misunderstood gem; a story that effortlessly combines aspects of all
of his films in order to create something wholly different and daring.
It seems that every Roeg film, in retrospect, is addressed
as being daring. Is this a
coincidence? Clearly it isn’t, seeing as
how the director wants the audience to take the part of active participant,
rather than just bystander. Some films
are made on the strict basis of being entertaining. Roeg’s films simply do not fall in that category,
which is why he is one of the most controversial artists of our time.
The Man Who Fell to Earth was marketed around musician
David Bowie’s first feature starring role as Thomas, an alien sent to earth to
retrieve water and send it back to his dying planet. What was meant to be a simple expedition soon
turns into a decade’s long journey, as Thomas quickly becomes enticed by acts
of cruelty and greed, making him more and more human as the years pass.
The first time I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth I found
it appalling. None of the characters
were likeable, the story was rubbish and acting quite flat. But then, a peculiar thing happened. A few years later I watched it again (for Cinema and Science-Fiction class) and fell in love with everything that I
originally thought I hated about the film.
I’d like to say that you will like the film once you see it, but I’d be
lying if I did. It is cinematic art in
the purest sense of the word. It presents
challenging ideas, which raise intriguing questions, without giving you any
Why did my opinion of the film change over the course of a
few years? I still don’t know. I was more mature, I guess? What I do know is that the film is more
science than fiction. It’s a meditative
tale about what makes us human and how humanity (that which is good and bad)
can be imprinted on others; even alien beings.
Like any great piece of art, it’s difficult to completely wrap your head
While at first glance Bowie might appear to be a flat
leading man, he gradually reveals himself to be a force to be reckoned with; effectively
playing a man who is not quite human but, over time, not quite alien. It’s a very difficult juggling act to
perform, seeing as how Thomas is a very cold character who lacks emotion, but
Bowie subtly builds and builds on the character to the point that you are
shocked as to how much you care about him and his unfortunate plight by the
time we reach the film’s climax.
Rip Torn’s Nathan and Candy Clark’s Mary-Lou are the other
two human beings who make an impact in Thomas’ life. While they are effective secondary
characters, neither of them can step out of Bowie’s shadow; it’s his show and
both he and Roeg are completely aware of said fact.
Roeg’s stylistic traits as a storyteller, as per usual, are
prevalent; most notably in the haunting opening moments in which Thomas falls
from the sky and lands in a sleepy town that time forgot. Roeg’s experience as a cinematographer has
never been more evident as it is here, with photography done by Anthony
Richmond. Almost immediately, the
cinematography and sparse music cues create a sense of dread and impending doom
that sets the tone for the remainder of the picture.
As is Roeg’s stylistic trademark, The Man Who Fell to Earth
plays with the way in which we, the audience, perceive the passing of time in
film. Character’s age in the blink of an
eye without any sort of explanation or disappear for long periods of time. While it is admittedly annoying at first,
give it time, as the story quickly finds its footing and allows you to become
enthralled with this strange little tale.
Nicolas Roeg is a director who respects the audience enough
to never give them easy answers. His
films take place in worlds that are both alien and familiar and contain
characters that have a tendency of being unlikable. But in the end, they are flawed (yes, the
same can be said for the Grand High Witch), which created strong drama and,
often times, intriguing scenarios. You
don’t have to like Roeg’s films, but we should respect the man for treating the
audience with intelligence. Besides,
there’s nothing wrong with challenging the audience every once and a while.