For all of his musical influence and his famous/infamous turn as Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson production Labyrinth, my original introduction to the cultural phenomenon that is David Bowie came from a strange, somewhat disjointed British science fiction film from the 1970s. The first film in which Bowie ever appeared as a leading actor, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a surreal, satirical, and ultimately very bleak look at American values, as seen through the eyes of a visitor from another world. In much the same way that the Martians in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds find themselves vulnerable to Earth’s diseases, Bowie’s alien finds himself far from immune to the destructive allure of earthly pleasures like alcohol, sex and television.
Thomas Jerome Newton, as Bowie’s alien calls himself while on Earth, lands in the New Mexico desert in search of water to bring back to his home planet, Anthea, where his wife and children are in danger of dying from a sever drought. Using the advanced technology of Anthea, he gains incredible wealth and a great deal of notoriety by patenting various inventions and becoming the head of World Enterprises Corporation, a technological conglomerate he forms with the help of patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Newton’s ulterior motive with the company is to construct a space vehicle with which to ship water back to Anthea, but he soon becomes distracted from this purpose by a dalliance with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel chambermaid who introduces Newton to alcohol and sex, and with whom he eventually moves into a house in New Mexico.
Meanwhile, Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), Newton’s confidante at World Enterprises, suspects that Newton is not of this world and manages to find proof via an X-ray photo he takes without Newton’s knowledge. As Bryce considers what to do with his newfound knowledge, Newton sinks deeper into an alcohol-fueled haze of despair, doing little more with his days than drinking and watching multiple television screens at once and finally driving both Bryce and Mary-Lou away from him as his true, alien self is revealed to them. It is not that Newton is portrayed as an evil alien, however, but rather that the temptations of earthly existence have corrupted him and his original, purely good intentions.
Director Nicolas Roeg tells this strange, slowly paced story with the distinctively mesmerizing visual style and unusual editing techniques he brought to other great films such as Walkabout and Bad Timing. Like these films, The Man Who Fell to Earth is so subtle and contemplative that it may require multiple viewings to parse out all of its meaning, but its bold and daring imagery and quietly menacing, otherworldly atmosphere make it a joy to behold, and well worth more than one viewing.
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