David Bowie as ET in 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth
"Lord, I never knew America was so beautiful!" cries Candy Clark, the ideal audience for British cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, which surveys the USA at its most gross and grandiose, through alien eyes. For his protagonist and avatar of Otherness, Roeg cast David Bowie. Orange-haired and alabaster, Bowie plays an extraterrestrial who splashes down in the Southwest, assumes the identity of Englishman "Mr. Newton," and proceeds to make himself a multimillionaire inventor, bent on developing the technology to return to his dying planet and family. The shifts of setting and passing of the 20-year timeline go unannounced; Newton never seems to age, while the singled-out characters affected by his visit — Clark's motel-chambermaid-turned-companion, Buck Henry's patent lawyer, Rip Torn's professor, Bernie Casey's government stooge — turn gray, heavy, and alcoholic. (The victim of muddling authorities and couch potato'ing, Newton grows venal and boozy himself.) Full of blown experiments such as cross-cutting dinner-theater Kabuki grunts with Torn's lovemaking, the film, celebrating its 35th anniversary with a re-release, is undeniably long, Panavision-wide, but of questionable depth. While immortalizing Bowie's mantis-like exoticism, Roeg fails to connect to the longing for family reunion that drives the plot. Domesticity is more vividly imagined as part of Earth society's sickness, defined in a preposterous moment when Bowie slo-mo slaps a tray of chocolate chip cookies from Clark's hands. Like her, the viewer sticks out the bad for a chance at the extraordinary; Roeg's images are nearly reward enough.
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