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Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Directed by: Nicolas Roeg

Premise: An alien lands on earth disguised as a human being. He starts a technology company to generate the infrastructure and revenue needed to build a spacecraft to get home.

What Works: In addition to his work as a musician, recording artist David Bowie was also an actor and he regularly had parts in films throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Most of the time Bowie was assigned to supporting roles as in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and The Last Temptation of Christ. One of his few leading roles was in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and if Bowie’s acting career were to be reduced to single film, this is it. Like Bowie’s music and other projects, The Man Who Fell to Earth defies definition and it is a strange and reflective piece of work. The rock star movie vehicle has been a major fixture of Hollywood but it isn’t an especially esteemed genre. More often than not, these pictures are vanity projects intended to increase a recording artist’s visibility and generate another revenue stream and these rock-star-to-movie-star efforts are frequently terrible. For every good film like 8-Mile there are a handful of awful titles like From Justin to Kelly, Glitter, and Cool as Ice. In that respect, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a radically different kind of movie. The film channels the alien qualities that David Bowie exhibited throughout his career and the role of an extraterrestrial marooned on Earth was a natural fit. But aside from matching the performer and the material, The Man Who Fell to Earth has little in it that resembles most other music-to-movies crossover projects. For one thing, Bowie doesn’t have any musical performances nor does his music appear on the soundtrack. It’s also strange in that Bowie’s character is so distant and unlikable. The purpose of most rock star movies is to boost the musician’s public image by linking him or her to a heroic character. But Bowie role’s in this picture is tragic at best. Instead, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a parable about fame in which an alien attempts to build his way off the planet through business success fueled by technological advances. But, as in rock stardom, success becomes a trap and the excesses of carnal pleasures and earthly distractions send him into a downward spiral.

What Doesn’t: The Man Who Fell to Earth is a puzzling and complicated picture. Director Nicolas Roeg was known for making movies with deliberately murky plots such as Performance and Don’t Look Now but The Man Who Fell to Earth takes this to another level. The story is partly a metaphor about celebrity and capitalism but the meaning of the movie is shrouded by its insular style and the filmmaking actually makes that metaphor more difficult to understand. The tone of the movie is aloof and distant, much like its main character, and The Man Who Fell to Earth isn’t emotionally engaging in the style of a Hollywood picture. That’s a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers but because it’s so avant garde and lacking in pathos appeal The Man Who Fell to Earth requires a lot of effort by the viewer. Its obscure qualities are exacerbated by the film’s excessive length. At two hours and nineteen minutes, The Man Who Fell to Earth is too long and it is frequently overindulgent with elaborate surrealistic sequences. For viewers accustomed to mainstream films, The Man Who Fell to Earth will be a tedious experience and for passing David Bowie fans the movie may disappoint insofar as it doesn’t adhere to the expectations of a typical rock star movie vehicle. The Man Who Fell to Earth is an example of a picture that is interesting and important but it isn’t especially entertaining, at least not in a way that adheres to the tastes and expectations of a general audience. But that’s exactly what makes the film unique.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition of The Man Who Fell to Earth includes interviews, trailers, image galleries, and a commentary track.

Bottom Line: The Man Who Fell to Earth is not designed to appeal to general audiences and even taken on its own terms this is a flawed movie. But The Man Who Fell to Earth is also an ambitious project, much more so than the average music-to-movie crossover. Its flaws are a part of why it has become a cult title and an important piece of Nicolas Roeg and David Bowie’s legacies.

Episode: #578 (January 17, 2016)