Among the most bizarre films in Nicolas Roeg’s oeuvre, his 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth is a singular, haunting sci-fi experience. Having left his planet in search of technology to save his home and family from death by a global warming-induced drought (one of many plot points clarified in the novel but left intriguingly, sometimes maddeningly vague in the film), Thomas Newton (David Bowie, sensitive and ethereal) arrives on Earth by plummeting into a New Mexico lake. The crash is presented by Roeg as a series of cuts and dissolves between Newton’s spacecraft and the New Mexico landscape, and the result is the impression of an interstellar traveler arriving in an alien land. Like Roeg’s Walkabout, Man Who Fell to Earth is an exploration of an individual’s grappling with an unfamiliar and unfriendly landscape, but whereas in Walkabout the landscape is the Australian outback, here it’s the entirety of Earth.
Newton stumbles down a hillside and passes out on a bench, and a high-angle shot of the alien staring up at the sky emphasizes his dislocation. Then, in the space of one cut (Roeg frequently compresses time in this way; years can pass without warning in the space between two scenes), Newton is presenting a patent for new sound equipment to lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), who Newton asks to head a new company. Soon, World Enterprises is a hugely successful multinational corporation producing everything from futuristic stereos to self-developing film cameras. It’s these cameras that attract the attention of a womanizing chemistry professor named Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), who leaves his teaching job to work for Newton on his company’s space program, designed as a way for Newton to return to his home planet.
On several occasions throughout the film, Roeg draws comparisons between Newton and the Greek myth of Icarus, most notably in an art book received by Bryce that contains Pieter Brughuel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which references the painting. This comparison is bolstered both visually (repeated shots of Newton tumbling into the lake) and narratively (with Newton’s ambition and economic success leading to an investigation and eventual capture by government officials).
The narrative of the film seems like a fairly straightforward sci-fi setup, but Roeg turns it into something mysterious, elliptical, and poetic. He strips the film of all but the most elemental narrative information; he’s more interested in tone and emotion than plot. Taking a cue from directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, Roeg frequently crosscuts between unconnected scenes and plays with the soundtrack in disruptive ways. As in the world of Godard, music starts and stops abruptly without any apparent logic or reason, and dialogue from one scene frequently plays out over footage from another. Sometimes Roeg’s experiments yield stunning results, evocative, and dreamlike, but occasionally they seem arbitrary and random, as if Roeg was screwing around without any idea of what his choices meant.
Man Who Fell to Earth is an aggressively imperfect film, alternately beautiful, mystifying, and embarrassing, and it’s a film to be treasured as much for its ambitious failures as for its successes. Like Icarus and Newton, Roeg sometimes aims for more than he’s able to accomplish, but the moments where he approaches the sun are glorious.