The Man Who Fell to Earth: Boring, Ballsy, Bowie
dir. Nicolas Roeg
It takes balls to rerelease a future-predicting science-fiction film 35 years later, when everything from the quality of the plot's prognostications to the sophistication of the film's visual effects will be subject to pointed scrutiny. But Nicolas Roeg has never lacked for chutzpah (rhymes with "foot spa," Bachmanns), and the refoisting of 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth on the people of the 21st century feels like a direct challenge to all who may doubt or downplay the film's quality and foresight.
The basic plot of The Man Who Fell to Earth—based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis—indeed seems ripe for revisiting: An alien from a drought-stricken planet makes a quest to Earth to save his homeland, but slowly finds his galaxy-questing drive sapped by the earthly pleasures of drugs, sex, and television. The connections to the contemporary era practically make themselves, but they quickly stall out as Roeg, enslaved to his inner visionary, strands his story in an adamantly '70s-scented swamp of stunning imagery, campy melodrama, and pretentious stasis.
At the center of everything: David Bowie, who stars as the alien and gives the rerelease its relevance, with the film capturing Bowie during what is now considered his most important and valuable artistic era. (Fans will recognize the room on the cover of Station to Station.) In the context of Bowie's art, Roeg's film is a triumph, displaying with startling precision Bowie's chameleonic gifts for self-dramatization. Bowie seizes the screen like some lost twin of Tilda Swinton, and only when Roeg shoves him into some Method-y scenes of mental deterioration does the failure of the film splash onto its star. The end result is a dazzlingly cryptic star vehicle for Bowie, featuring a collection of truly gorgeous images assembled and shot by Roeg, all mired in a pretentious mess of a movie that feels very, very long. (And oh, yeah: The "twenty minutes of material cut from the original release!" hyped in this rerelease are the same 20 minutes included in the long-available Criterion Collection DVD.)