Saturday, 18 April 2009
Sci-Fi Spotlight #3: The Man Who Fell To Earth
This was a strange one. I should have suspected that science fiction from Nic Roeg would not be anything I could anticipate, and sure enough I’m still struggling to decide what to make of The Man Who Fell To Earth. At the simplest level, it shows an odd-looking man named Newton (David Bowie) appearing in small town America - literally falling from the sky - and swiftly becoming one of the most powerful businessmen in the country. He is a cold, reclusive type, and we eventually discover that he is an alien, come to earth as his planet has run out of water. We see brief shots of his alien family dying back home, but Newton becomes distracted by the money and entertainment available to him on earth, and never returns home.
Roeg doesn’t so much tell this story as make you work to tell the story yourself. Large chunks of time are skipped over, and you have to fill in what happens inbetween with your imagination. So we see Newton arrive on earth with nothing, and in only a few moments of screen time we are several years down the line and he’s running World Enterprise, a massive company that is leading the field in American research and technology. This initially suggests that he has unearthly intelligence or resources, but if this is the case it is never made explicit, and doesn’t seem to feature as the story progresses and Newton is ultimately overcome by the world.
Bowie’s performance is excellent, impenetrable and otherworldly. His pale skin and dyed red hair, combined with his hollow stare, make him seem more like an alien in human shape than when his character sheds the human disguise and is revealed in his ‘real’, make-up heavy form. Throughout the film, apart from a couple of scenes, he remains without emotion, and his thoughts and desires are similarly obscured. If there is reason or purpose in his actions then Roeg is not interested in discovering it.
What, then, is Roeg interested in showing or discovering in The Man Who Fell To Earth? He creates a lot of fascinating visuals, but there isn’t a lot of sense behind them; while the film certainly seems to have artistic intentions, watching it is something of an empty experience. It also feels very dated, being full of gratuitous nudity and extended sex scenes that may have been provocative in the 70s but now beg the question ‘why?’ Similarly, Roeg plays with the timeline of the film as if to challenge conventional storytelling techniques, but to no discernible purpose.
So roll on Alphaville, I say. Perhaps I can make more sense of Jean-Luc Godard. Errr…