Dir. by Nicolas Roeg - 2 hrs. 19 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" is a product of another time, first and foremost. There are two kinds of sci-fi movies (of which this loosely qualifies); ones based around ideas, and ones based around visuals. I tend to be of the opinion that special effects ruined science fiction: why spend the time developing mind-blowing ideas when you can just make something look cool instead? This film decided to take someone who was cool (David Bowie), and build a fish-out-of-water story around him. The sci-fi elements remain in the background of the story for much of the film (while Bowie is playing a spaceman, he is a stranded one who must amass an Earthly fortune in order to even attempt to return home. Spaceships ain't cheap!), and the focus is more or less on Thomas' (Bowie's character) relationships; a romantic one with Mary-Lou (played by Candy Clark) and a professional one with Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn).
The film takes advantage of Bowie's image at the time (a somewhat distant, affected one), so I'm uncertain of whether he's a talented actor (Bowie won an award for his role in the 26th Berlin International Film Festival) or the beneficiary of perfect casting. Either way, it works. Torn and Clark have more difficult roles, playing several different ages while Bowie's character never ages at all.
As for the plot, it's present, but not very insistent. This is a leisurely-paced film, at times more concerned with having Bowie acting weird and distant, or with showing it's characters naked (not even getting into the women, both Torn and Bowie go full-frontal at different points). Director Nicolas Roeg takes full advantage of the natural beauty of New Mexico, there are numerous, languorous shots. While this makes sense, it's also problematic. When you're trying to get across something is boring, it's pretty important not to actually bore your audience. Thomas is clearly impatiently killing time until he's made enough money (and developed technology far enough) to attempt to return home, but there are too many times where it feels like the film is just killing time, too. For the era it's from, a little meandering isn't unexpected, but this movie is nearly two and a half hours long.
Visually, there are some interesting things going on (Bowie's lean, angular frame being part of that), but it's not quite the equivalent of other then-contemporary fantastic films (in the sense of fantasy - wild visual ideas spread across a big screen). I wanted to like this movie, and I did, but I wasn't blown away. I especially liked the sort of mundane approach that an alien had to take to try to return home (filing for lucrative patents isn't that glamorous, but clever in a sophisticated way), but the film's insistence on taking a scenic route to whatever the point is ultimately makes it hard to love. There are a few graphic, shocking scenes along the way to break things up (Thomas' apparently losing his mind in front of a wall of TVs while Mary-Lou wails at him, Thomas' reveal of his alien form to Mary-Lou, a scene late in the film involving a gun), but it's just not enough to add up to a satisfying experience. I appreciate the vastly different track taken with a science-fiction idea, and would like to see more films in this vein, but this was not a home-run.
3 / 5 - Theatre