That Nicolas Roeg would make a science fiction film is less surprising than the perception among many that the director hadn't made one previously: Roeg's forte as a visual artist is his ability to make the familiar and pedestrian alien, abstract and atmospheric. Such an aesthetic serves him well in the story of an alien who lands on Earth seeking water to take back to his drought-stricken planet: through his eyes, the surreality of Roeg's vision of Earth looks even more bizarre.
But just as Roeg's other films exhibit flashes of science fiction-like shots in differing genres, so too does The Man Who Fell to Earth not fit neatly into one area. The initial plot of the alien come to gather water splinters almost immediately, and Roeg's film morphs into something more complex, baffling and, once you get into the groove, beautiful. Part paranoid thriller in the Alan J. Pakula model, part cynical love story and part scathing critique of materialist America, The Man Who Fell to Earth takes Roeg's pet theme of the communicative barriers we erect around ourselves to an extreme, focusing on a creature who first cannot understand our ways and subsequently doesn't want to after unlocking their mysteries.
And who better to play the role of an androgynous, aloof, egotistical alien than Ziggy Stardust himself, David Bowie? The harmony between player and part is so strong that one forgets that Roeg adapted a novel instead of writing the role specifically for the rocker, then trapped in the downward spiral of his cocaine addiction. The weight loss spurred by his addiction only makes the character of Thomas Jerome Newton look even stranger, a gaunt waif sporting a shock of orange hair that redirects focus at all times to Bowie wherever he is on the screen.
Yet if the predominant mood of Roeg's masterpiece, Walkabout, was nostalgia-flecked sadness, the atmosphere he conjures with this film is considerably more ironic. The opening credits play grainy shots of objects and beings traveling through space, yet they look almost pedestrian, as do later visions of the alien's family back home. Once the film properly begins, however, with Newton's spaceship crashing into a lake in the New Mexico, Roeg's vision of the world is crisp but oblique, scattershot and threatening. The director adds an amusing element to Newton's unfamiliarity with his surroundings by having the alien pose as a Brit, as if the Englishman Roeg cannot process modern America. You can almost see him clucking his tongue as he looks around his shooting locations, drawling to himself, "You turn your back for 200 years and the place goes mad."
Yet Thomas adapts quickly, not to the mannerisms of human interaction but something more important, at least in the views of society: he brings with him advanced technology, and he finds a patent lawyer as quickly as possible before launching enough "inventions" to establish a world conglomerate within months. Newton becomes a Howard Hughes character, his inexperience with humanity excused as eccentricity. His instantaneous success breaks up what could have been a straightforward plot, showing how a flash of cash answers all questions in America, and even an alien being can establish himself as a king. Soon, he's buying up major companies in his attempt to develop technology to take water back to his planet or to bring his people to Earth (the movie does not go into detail in such matters), but Newton stays in modest accommodations and, apart from the luxury of a phone in his car and a personal driver, does not exhibit any lavish habits. But that's the nature of major wealth: the rich don't spend their money, choosing only to sit on it, so no one questions his low-key life. At least the alien has a noble reason for saving his money.
Just as he did with Walkabout, Roeg builds an unsettling atmosphere through the constant juxtaposition of imagery. Here, he shows Newton's fears of this new world in primarily sexual terms: clearly unaccustomed to humanoid sex, he sits watching Japanese theater as actors engage in swordplay, which Roeg plays against shots of fuel technician and professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), who comes to play a major role in the film, bedding a number of his students. As Newton grows increasingly uncomfortable, the parallels between the acted violence and the playful sex grow until even the alien cannot take it anymore and leaves the club.
Both this vague fear of sex and Roeg's ironic, British evaluation of contemporary America combine when Newton checks into a small hotel on one of his business trips. The woman who takes his bags, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a mousy, awkward young woman, inadvertently causes Thomas extreme pain by insisting he ride the elevator -- in one of the film's many cruel twists, the being who traveled light years cannot stand any swift movement on Earth. Once the elevator finally stops, Mary-Lou summons a surprising amount of strength and carries Newton, bleeding and vomiting to his room.
Intrigued by her, Thomas slowly enters into an affair with Mary-Lou, and he learns about humanity through interaction with her. She takes Newton to church, introduces him to alcohol and teaches him a thing or two about sex. However, acclimating to humanity also teaches Newton about distracting pleasures like television and, yes, sex. Soon, the modest home he makes with Mary-Lou features a wall of TVs that the alien watches all at once, his concerns for his home planet drifting away in the face of convenience. After a point, he barely leaves the house; when he does, he often asks for the people he visits to turn on their TVs.
That is the portrait Roeg paints of modern America: a place where all concerns, all logic, all drive melts in the face of programmed pleasure. Thomas sits in front of his TV all day, his perpetual youth making him as plastic and false as the images that beam at him. Mary-Lou deals with his fading interest in her and the eventual revelation of his true nature through alcoholism and a warped sense of Christian values. "I lifted you up once," she intones upon seeing the alien's true form and deciding to stay with him, yet she never once questions the morality of sleeping with a married man (or alien). Bryce deals with his boredom at university by engaging in casual sex with students so young that half of them look upon his body and exclaim, "You don't look anything like my father!" When he heads to Newton's company, however, he places such interests aside, confiding in the audience that his "mind had a libido of its own." Yet once he discovers Newton's true nature and the government takes the alien away, Bryce returns to his old ways, his brief flash of motivation petered out in favor of the constant of nubile flesh.
Once the government does find out about Newton, the film shifts into yet new territory, taking on the feel of a classic paranoid thriller. State Department officials lock him in a fake apartment where they experiment upon him for years. Apart from a few exclamations of pain, however, Newton does not do anything to fight back, and he contents himself by requesting a TV and, occasionally, Mary-Lou. Interestingly, the government seems less concerned with studying an alien life form than they do breaking up the monopoly it built. Americans love wealth, but if one person gets all the money, he edges out the other big corporations; an aristocracy is acceptable, but not an aristocracy of one. "This is modern America," one official says to his colleagues, "and we're going to keep it that way." Their experiments, such as photographing Newton's eyes with X-rays, are perversely humanizing, sealing his humanoid contact lenses onto his eyes permanently as they hold him until his conglomerate can fully dissolve and become nothing but a distant memory in the public consciousness so they'll return to buying from Kodak, DuPont and the like.
Thus, Newton goes free, his mission long since abandoned with a final goodbye to his family via a vinyl record, a farewell that could apply equally to his apathy toward returning as it is to their doomed plight. Bowie takes to the final image of a broken alcoholic with disturbing ease: Newton would inform Bowie's Thin White Duke persona to appear on his next album, Station to Station, and a still from the film became the cover for his recovery album, Low. Seeing Newton distance himself from the universe in his single-minded devotion to television parallels Bowie's increasingly chaotic cocaine binge, which impeded his work and led to intense paranoia. And when he bows his head at the end, cut off from his booze, the fragile, hollowed man frozen over the credits hints at the artist's desperate cleansing of his Berlin period. Roeg couldn't have predicted these events, but the real-life parallels between the film and Bowie add yet another facet to a film that layers time and imagery into one bravura experiment, an assault on the mainstream with a lead performer who was as indicative of the issues of modern America as he was above them in his detached way.