His spaceship is a time capsule
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 15, 2011
After watching Nicolas Roeg’s cult classic “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” now being re-released with 20 minutes of footage that was cut for the film’s 1976 U.S. release, it’s hard to know who exactly has been clamoring for all that extra celluloid. At 139 minutes, the film — which stars a pale, emaciated and flame-haired David Bowie as a sad, alcoholic alien — feels like a tedious historical artifact. It’s a sci-fi “Days of Wine and Roses” for the arthouse crowd.
In his major film debut, Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Nelson, a spaceman who comes to our planet, ends up making millions as a high-tech industrialist and then gets hooked on booze. The rock star is fine, seeing as his character, who is ostensibly here to figure out a way to get water back to his drought-stricken planet, doesn’t really have to register as human anyway. But the acting is unacceptably stiff from Buck Henry as Newton’s lawyer and Rip Torn as a chemist who works for him. Candy Clark is especially dreadful as Mary-Lou, a hotel maid who ends up falling, inexplicably, for the inscrutable extraterrestrial.
Maybe 35 years ago, if you were at a midnight screening, in an altered state of consciousness, in a theater full of — ahem — like-minded undergraduates, the movie might have seemed deep and cosmic. Like a critique of contemporary consumerist culture or something, man.
Looking back in the cold, clear light of today, it’s just a long, hard slog.
The costumes, featuring an array of wide-lapeled print shirts, are ugly. The special effects — which include an obvious latex bald wig on Bowie when he’s in his E.T. mode, and an alien craft that looks like a yellow stucco toolshed — are laughable. And the gaps in continuity and sluggish, self-indulgent pacing are probably why the movie was cut in the first place.
But the melodramatic story and awkward, pseudo-profound dialogue are the movie’s biggest problems. You’ll yearn for an ending that never seems to come, and even when it does, it’s a letdown. At least from time to time you can enjoy the occasional flash of dumb humor, as in this exchange between Nelson and Torn’s Dr. Bryce.
Nelson: Ask me.
Nelson: The question you’ve been wanting to ask ever since we met.
Bryce: Are you Lithuanian?
Contains nudity, sex, obscenity and some violence.