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United Kingdom 1976
Directed by
Nicolas Roeg
140 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Man Who Fell To Earth

Synopsis: An alien (David Bowie) from a dying planet comes to Earth to save his world. He accumulates vast wealth and uses it to build a spaceship, planning to return home with supplies of water for his people. But life on Earth and its ways begin to corrupt him whilst human venality and stupidity blight his plans..

Director Nicolas Roeg and David Bowie were both at the height of their respective careers at the time this film was made. Bowie was no actor but the role of The Man Who Fell to Earth was perfectly suited to his stage persona whilst his on-screen awkwardness was equally apposite for his character.  Roeg had emerged as director to watch out for, first in his collaboration with Donald Camell on Performance (1970), then, as a solo director, with Walkabout (1971) - films of both conceptual and visual intelligence preoccupied with the intersection between the darker side of the human psyche and social mores.

Based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote the original story of The Hustler, 1961) and scripted by Paul Mayersberg (whose credits also includes another Bowie film, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, 1983) it follows the original text substantially but makes it less of a conventional sci-fi story (the contraption The Man and his family travel in is hardly the kind of kind of technological gizmo favoured by the genre whilst equally no attempt is made to justify The Man's improbable plan to save his family) and more a multi-layered Zeitgeist-suited story of estrangement, alienation and corporate conspiracy.

Probably most interestingly there is a good deal of sexual amplification of the original story and the film is in this respect a kind of re-visiting of Performance which, of course, also starred a prominent rock star. The character of Mary Lou (Candy Clark in her most memorable screen role) is ramped-up (in the novel she's a middle-aged housemaid called Betty Jo) as is the conspiracy aspect and Roeg gives the narrative a more elliptical treatment whilst visually the film is much richer than anything Tevis put on paper. Noted screenwriter Buck Henry, whose credits include The Graduate (1967) and who was the creator of Get Smart, plays the gay lawyer, Oliver Farnsworth. 

FYI:  Roeg cast Bowie on the strength of Cracked Actor, the 1975 BBC profile of the star, even appropriating some of director Alan Yentob's set-ups, notably Bowie wearing a fedora in the back seat of a limousine.

In 1987 the film was loosely remade as a pilot for a television series that, unsurprisingly, never eventuated.




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