Monday, June 21, 2010

The Return Of The Thin White Duke

They say that casting is 90% of good direction; if you cast the right people in the right parts, most of the story takes care of itself. If that were true, it stand to reason that Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth would be 90% watchable. Not so much, as it turns out.

Based on a 1961 novel by Walter Tevis, TMWFTE is the story of an alien who comes to Earth to save his family, dying on a drought-stricken planet. The alien takes the name of Thomas Jerome Newton and raises money by taking out patents on his world's technology, to the end of building a spaceship to ferry water back home. Ultimately Newton is undone by the twin earth vices of booze and televsion, though he is also stopped by a shadowy government force.

Roeg was a brilliant cinematographer who loved great images. And indeed, the movie looks fabulous, especially on Blu-Ray. However, as a storyteller he was crap. Ambiguity is a great strategy for a scene, but applied to a whole movie like it is here, it's just frustrating. Roeg does everything he can to avoid pinning down even the question of whether Newton is an alien. Maybe he's just an eccentric millionaire genius! Maybe not! Scene after scene tumbles out with deliberately inexplicable details which, by design, never pay off. Well, it was the seventies, and people were tired of the whole "narrative" thing, man.

Of course, there's a lot ot like in this film's details, starting with David Bowie as Newton. Like Shelly Duval's Olive Oyl, this is the role Bowie was born to play and he hasn't been cast better since. Charismatic, weird, often glamorous and incapable of loving an attractive woman (he was famously homosexual in the early seventies, though he became hetrosexual by the eighties - chameleons!) Bowie is the movie's only convincing special effect. Meanwhile Candy Clark, as the dumb-as-a-post woman who takes Newton under her sexually-aroused wing, has the best line of dialog I could ever imagine being in this movie: hanging out in Newton's hotel room and worried about his earlier fainting bout, she says, "You know something mister? I don't think you get enough to eat. You're too thin!" 

Rip Torn and Buck Henry both also appear, but Torn seems to be overacting by just enough to ruin his early scenes. And later, as all the characters except Newton age, everyone is unconvincing. I should mention this - there's a lot more nudity (frontal, from all sexes) than you're used to. Take that as a warning or an endorsement. Yes even Bowie. No, especially Bowie.

There's two minor quibbles that especially gall me, and I blame Roeg for both. The flashbacks to Newton's water-starved planet are these long shots of a barren desert with a big sky hanging over it... a big sky blanketed with clouds. From the looks of the place if they just wait another couple of hours, it's gonna start raining like crazy. The other thing is early on they establish one of Newton's patents is a little metal sphere that plays music - it's like a proto-CD but even cooler. Great idea. But later on Rip Torn goes into a record store (Tower Records on Sunset, as a matter of fact) and you know what? They're selling records. Not only is no effort made to dress the place up with at least a stack of little musical ball-bearings, Torn even passes a display of Bowie's Young Americans LP, on sale for $4.99 each. Budgets are one thing but come on! Can we at least TRY to sell the illusion?


  1. "However, as a storyteller he was crap."

    Oh dear. Not much point in finishing reading this review, we'e obviously not going to get much insight.

  2. I'm sorry Wolfgang. Story isn't the only thing to love about a movie, but it is an element.

    Actually I think the reason to not read this review is, like the movie, it's not especially well-thought out.