Roeg, warrior

A new print of The Man Who Fell to Earth tugs the offbeat director back into the spotlight

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Space oddity: David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
PHOTO COURTESY BFI

arts@sfbg.com

FILM It's grown obvious in ways it couldn't have been originally that from 1970 to 1980 Nicolas Roeg was the most adventuresome English director, even if then as now his work seems less "British" than just about any colleague you could name. Perhaps not quite knowing where he was coming from — in any sense — made Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1980) messy, strange, and interesting in ways that then felt borderline gimmicky, as disjointed as they were deliberately dislocative. Yet all those qualities have helped the films age beautifully. In fact they've scarcely dated at all, perhaps because their lateral rather than linear storytelling, seemingly contrary audio and visual cues, and pervasive cultural unease reflect a mindset familiar enough now but very strange those decades ago.

That remarkable run comes to mind because of Earth's return in a newly struck 35th anniversary print that offers the complete 139-minute "director's cut." That version has in fact been available for years — the heavily-cut original U.S. theatrical release is doubtless harder to find now — but remains full of surprises. Even after so long a span, it's a science fiction movie unconventional enough to annoy the hell out of many professed sci-fi film fans. But then their template was formed the next year by Star Wars (1977), then shortly thereafter by Alien (1979) — two expressions of sci-fi rooted in comic books and '50s monster movies respectively, spawning innumerable imitations since equally focused on action over ideas.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, stubbornly, has no interest in spaceships, let alone battles or creatures. Instead, its subject is human society, which from the title character's viewpoint really is nothing for our planet to brag about. It's still an alien piece of filmmaking because Roeg wants us to view earthly life with fresh eyes that gradually dim from amused curiosity to the cynicism of a reluctant émigré forced into permanent residency in a land he despises.

In his first major film role, David Bowie plays Thomas Newton, who turns up in the American Southwest out of the blue — no one realizes at first quite how literally — with ideas for "toys" of extraordinary technological advancement that quickly make him a very, very wealthy man. Amassing money seems to be his only real interest, toward a goal he eventually reveals to hand-picked confederates including patent attorney Buck Henry and technician Rip Torn, plus singularly dim companion Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). That goal is constructing a space vehicle capable of returning Newton to his planet, which is dying from drought. (Our protagonist's decline is charted in his changing beverage choices, from precious water to the cheap consolation of alcohol.) He intends no harm. But despite all efforts at evading notice, he inevitably attracts invasive government attention as a freak of potential scientific, capitalist, or militaristic use.

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