It’s January 26th, 1976, and Nicolas Roeg has his eyes fixed firmly on the television screen. He is mesmerised, transfixed by a man completely unlike any he’s seen before. The man is pallid, with high cheekbones and sallow, sunken eyes that have seen far too many long nights. The man is David Bowie, and he is about to become the star of Reog’s ambitious new project, The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Turning 45 this week, The Man That Fell To Earth was unlike anything else in 1976. Ahead of its release in cinemas, it was described as: “A powerful love story, a cosmic mystery, a spectacular fantasy – a shocking, mind-stretching experience in sight, in space, and in sex.” And, best of all, it featured a performance by one of Britain’s most successful musical exports.
At the time Roeg hired Bowie, he was in a phase of metamorphoses, transitioning from his Ziggy Stardust persona to the slick Thin White Duke. Having achieved the fame he’d so craved in his younger days, David Bowie was beginning to crack under the weight of it. Consuming frightening amounts of cocaine, Bowie was stick-thin, and his skin was almost translucent when Roeg saw him on his television screen. Perhaps it was the sight of a young man going quietly mad or the sheer eeriness of his countenance, but as soon as Roeg saw the star, he knew he’d found the performer he wanted to play Thomas Jerome Newton. “I didn’t want an actor,” Roeg would later say. “I wanted someone who had the possibility of being unique.”
The Man Who Fell To Earth is a simple story: one in which an alien lifeform crash-lands in a back-water town in New Mexico, where he befriends a local waitress and adapts to his new life on a foreign planet. At its heart, it is a universal tale of dislocation. But throughout the piece, Roeg continually warps our perception of time, space and of the self; jumping from narrative to narrative without a moments notice. Despite its simple premise, audiences and critics alike are still unsure of what the film is even about. Is it an exploration of cultural displacement? A parable of Bowie’s own life? A comment on consumerist culture and the influence of mass media? Or perhaps it is all these things at once? It’s really impossible to tell because Roeg’s film almost defies interpretation. Like the scene in which Thomas Jerome Newton consumes the hypnotic images of 20 separate TV screens, we are forced to submit to the images Roeg throws our way.
As you can expect, the film divided opinions. Some regarded it as a testament to the narrative capabilities of cinema, a stunning indictment of the way modern society cripples the individual’s sense of self. For others, Roeg’s film was pompous enough to be almost laughable. It was too preposterous and pretentious to be entertaining, only succeeding in confusing audiences with its warped continuity. Despite its stunning visuals, it failed to express the simple story at its heart.
But today, the film has achieved cult status and, for many, it is the most intellectually provocative genre film of the 1970s. It’s almost impossible to imagine a movie like The Man Who Fell To Earth being shown in mainstream cinemas now. It was released at a time when the line between experimental film and mainstream cinema was blurred, a time when Hollywood’s top directors were making intentionally provocative films, and audiences were willing to go and watch them. I don’t necessarily believe those days are over, however. Consider films like Parasite, or Midsommer, both incredibly provocative films that have garnered both critical and commercial success. So there’s no need to be disheartened.
But perhaps the most obvious legacy that Roeg’s film has left behind is the ‘time-is-go’ motif. It can be seen in everything from Donnie Darko and Momento to Intersteller and Under The Skin. Arguably, The mind-bending experimentation of The Man Who Fell To Earth introduced a new kind of narrative language, and it is a language that has acted as the backbone of many of the last two decade’s most engrossing films. 45 years on, it is clear to see that Roeg wasn’t concerned with giving audiences a good story, but with innovating his art form.