In a way the film's flashy sci-fi exoskeleton doesn't help. Fretting about the finer details of Newton's story (how exactly is he supposed to get all that water back?) and tugging compulsively at its many loose-ends (such as the moment when, gliding along in his limo, Newton seems to look into the past and get a glimpse of nineteenth century homesteaders, who stare back at him in amazement) can make the film seem much less accessible than it is. From this distance, 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' is perhaps better seen as an ambivalent and distinctly European response to America, to its eat 'em up and spit 'em out corporate ethos and to the spiritually bracing vastness of its landscapes.
Because this is not so much a film about aliens in terms of little green men as it is about the state of being an alien in a foreign country. It was shot by Englishman abroad Roeg in New Mexico with a largely British crew, working from a script by another Brit, Paul Mayersberg. Newton himself, famously, has a battered British passport. Even the movie's notorious temporal jiggery-pokery - for Newton it's as if only weeks are passing while the human characters grow flabby and old as the years roll by - can be interpreted as a wry comment upon the mismatch between a languorous ancien regime tempo and the frenetic, turbo-charged speed of the New World.
Enriching this theme is some astute riffing upon Bowie's public persona and private foibles, in part inspired by Alan Yentob's revealing 1975 Omnibus documentary, 'Cracked Actor', which recorded druggy rear of the limo conversations with Bowie as - on the back of his 1974 tour and the stratospheric levels of publicity it engendered - he struggled to cope with making it big in America. Roeg referenced certain scenes from the documentary in the film, and further blurred fact and fiction by supplying Newton with Bowie's real life blue limousine and driver/bodyguard, Tony Mascia. For his part, Bowie immersed himself in the part so thoroughly that he could still be seen walking around in bits and pieces of Newton's wardrobe long after shooting wrapped, and there's a straight line between the elegantly wasted alien and Bowie's next onstage incarnation, the Thin White Duke.
Arguably Bowie isn't asked to do much more than look deep and cadaverously handsome (the harrowing thinness of his body was the result of a lost weekend in LA that lasted several months) but just how vital his contribution is can be appreciated if you try to imagine what the film would have been like had it been made with some of the other possible candidates for the lead, such as Peter O'Toole, six foot nine science fiction writer Michael Crichton (admittedly, that one's morbidly intriguing) or Robert Redford, who was the choice of the film's original backers, Columbia.
What Bowie brings to the table - aside from his iconic status - is a unique combination of poise and fragility. Unlike Superman or even ET, Newton's extra-terrestrial origins grant him no superpowers, except for a longevity which is less a blessing than a curse. Otherwise, he's frail, almost childlike by human standards. Sensitive to earth's gravity, he winces when his driver accelerates over 30 miles an hour. He makes an odd couple with Mary-Lou, the cheerfully coarse chambermaid (played by Roeg's then girlfriend Candy Clark) who literally sweeps him off his feet when he collapses in the hotel where she works. Cheap, awkwardly sensual and abrasively loud, Mary-Lou acts as a buffer between Newton and his strange environment, and is instrumental in providing him with two even more enduring methods of tuning out – alcohol and TV. Clark's performance is either brilliant and brave or a bit annoying depending on your point of view, but without it, 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' would be decidedly less earthy.
This seamy idyll is soon on the slide, however, and reaches crisis point when Newton reveals his true alien self to Mary-Lou, who pees herself in horror. Spirited away by mysterious forces who object to the 'technological over-stimulation' he has caused and betrayed by those closest to him (apart from the person you would least expect to stand by his side, the prissy and emotionally constipated president of Newton's company, Farnsworth (Buck Henry,) who takes an hilariously staged fatal header through the window of his penthouse apartment for his pains,) Newton is sequestered by his captors in a labyrinthine, shabby-chic hotel suite like the quarters of some exiled princeling, where, between batches of painful medical tests, he subsides into a nihilistic daze.
Eventually he finds catharsis in a final riotous bout of love-making with the now dumpy and bloated Mary-Lou. He fires a gun at her, but it is full of blanks, as he gleefully admits. By symbolically celebrating his state of impotence, he at last achieves a measure of freedom. (At least, that's one possible answer to the question, 'Yeah, but what does it all mean?') Yet despite his humbling and bruising experiences, he is no closer to bridging the gap between himself and humanity, to judge by the way 'The Visitor,' the portentous-looking record he then releases, is piled high on the reduced stacks.
Marking the end of an era of exploration in both inner and outer space, 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' can be read as a riddling homily on the vanity of human wishes. Its message is that we are all alone and helpless. What a paradox that this seemingly iconoclastic and counter-cultural movie should express a thought as old as Ecclesiastes. But despite its unrelieved pessimism and its carefully calibrated anticlimaxes, the film is far from depressing. Quite the opposite, its tart ironies and mind-expanding imagery give it an airiness, a quicksilver spirit that is unique in Roeg's work. There is something uplifting about being in the hands of a director so in command of his technique - and what a technique it is, a daring dicing and splicing of celluloid that makes Roeg the William Burroughs of cinema. Kudos to Studiocanal for putting this masterpiece back where it belongs on the big screen as part of their Made in Britain season.
Suggested further reading: 'Bowie in Berlin,' Thomas Jerome Seabrook, Jawbone Press, 2008