Slowly—and I would say, elegantly—paced, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is one of the odder films ever to play mainstream cinemas. And it’s even from a time when some pretty odd movies played multiplexes. It can be maddening—especially to a first-time viewer (it really needs at least two viewings)—and it can be confusing. Densely layered and under the assumption that the audience has both an attention span and a degree of intelligence, the film doesn’t even lay out its plot until 90 of its 139 minutes have passed. Even when it does more or less explain itself, it keeps many of its mysteries to itself—and up to the individual interpretation of the viewer.
Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who pretty much literally fell to earth (at least from what we see). He has arrived with nine basic patents, which quickly transform him into a very wealthy individual. (Note the word “individual,” because that’s key to understanding the film’s relation to big business.) The story then simply follows Newton’s fate on earth. It suggests much and tells little. It can even be read as a kind of picture of Bowie himself—hitting on his androgyny and bisexuality (in one reference), and even offering a fantasticated concept of his emergence as a rock star. (Being made in 1976, the picture doesn’t quite get the full force of his chameleon qualities.) It’s a beautiful film—there’s scarcely an uninteresting composition in the entire movie—and a disquieting, thought-provoking one, especially as concerns the idea that humankind would not be satisfied until it turned Newton into one of us. Roeg’s film leaves you with much to think about in ways few movies do.