November 2, 2011 by abbyo
In his review of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Roger Ebert writes that “there’s nothing more frustrating than asking logical questions about a movie that insists on being visionary.” That, in one small quote, basically sums up my reaction to this film. There are Grand Canyon gaps of plot and logic that it takes Superman-sized leaps of imagination to cross, relationships that are never fully explained, and the constant nagging feeling that there was something I should be catching on to that I wasn’t. But at the same time, it’s brilliantly shot and edited, and, from an artistic perspective, presents interesting comments on modern technology, physical space, and the stacks of abandoned dreams and lack of ambition that characterize modern society. It’s less a movie than it is a 139-minute video art presentation, like a Nam June Paik piece with a plotline.
Here’s what we know: An alien visitor (David Bowie, in his film debut) crash-lands in a lake in New Mexico. He claims to be from England, and even has a passport to back up the claim. He makes a massive fortune by commercializing patents for inventions from his home planet. He’s doing all this because he wants to use the money to save his home, which is suffering from a massive drought, and where his wife and two children are waiting for him to return. After hooking up with a sweet, simpleminded hotel maid, Bowie slowly succumbs to the twin vices of booze and television, and gradually loses his drive to go home.
That sounds simple enough, sure, but it’s made more complicated by other characters whose relationships to each other, and to Bowie’s alien, are never fully explained. Most of the end of the movie shows Bowie being held captive and tested on by a bunch of scientists, but we never know who they represent, or why they’re experimenting on him. Are they from the government or from a rival company? The entire series of tests they run seem to be based on proving that he’s not actually an alien, while Bowie tries to explain to them that he is; which is totally confusing. If they don’t believe he’s from another planet, why bother experimenting to prove that he is? Why does Bowie suddenly want them to believe that he’s an extraterrestrial when he’s spent years in disguise as a human? Therein lays the frustration. At multiple points in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” I just wanted to pin the movie down and make it speak in complete sentences so I could figure out what the hell it was trying to tell me.
However, artistically, there’s so much going on here that I almost want to forgive director Nicholas Roeg for being so irritatingly vague with the story. Bowie’s obsession with television is an interesting thing to see. He’s nearly always watching multiple screens at the same time, and turns them on whenever he feels like it, even as a way to escape arguments. The look he gets on his face is something akin to a junkie taking a hit.
And while he never completely loses his purpose to get back to his home planet and save his family, there always seems to be something that keeps Bowie from achieving that goal. One could argue that after he has his first gin and tonic, his character seems a bit less rushed to get things done. Whether or not Bowie realizes it, our culture has made him lazy, taken those dreams that once seemed so easily achievable, and made them ever more distant until they become a memory.
Then there’s the fascination with space. Not outer space, but the physical concept of space. Roeg’s camera does really interesting things with the distance between people. For example, Bowie’s character loves openness, and appears to dislike crowds. He moves his company’s operation from New York to New Mexico, ostensibly because it is less crowded. His love scenes with Mary Lou, the woman he picks up at the hotel, are often intercut with big black screens showing people falling through the air, being apart, and coming together. For Bowie, space is akin to intimacy.
Physically, space is intimacy. But emotionally, it is not. Bowie’s desire to keep Mary Lou at an emotional distance kills their relationship. He’s so removed from his actual family that they don’t become people so much as ideals. And Rip Torn, Bowie’s scientist colleague, is separated from his wife, but doesn’t seem to care. Like Bowie, he’s apart from his family, and he’s all but forgotten about them. He doesn’t even care about what it was he had.
There are a lot of ideas to explore in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” ideas that are worth looking at, and considering, and which are represented in visually arresting ways. But as a piece of storytelling, the film never quite finds its feet. It’s a series of related images that feel like they might be better represented as a piece of modern art, perhaps like one of Bowie’s walls of sets. But even looking at a single piece of art loses its charm if you stare at it for too long, and although “The Man Who Fell to Earth” has some interesting things to say, it just takes too long to say them in a way that’s never fully coherent. As Ebert concludes, “Some of the pieces are, in themselves, so very good that we really regret they don’t fit together.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.