Somewhere out in the vast multiverse, there’s a world where Star Wars was a dismal failure in 1977. Simply because the genre of science fiction in film had already been redefined in 1976 by Nicolas Roeg’s sublime The Man Who Fell To Earth – a film which has finally released its soundtrack and also has a spiffing 4k re-release.
Starring the now sadly departed David Bowie as Thomas Newton, an alien who comes to Earth to bring home water in an effort to save his world. While on his mission to save his wife and children, he becomes a mysterious inventor who uses his advanced science to develop technology years ahead of where Earth should be at this point in the 1970s. And in the course of that, he becomes a millionaire by developing advanced space travel. Sadly for Newton, the American government and rival companies hijack his attempts to travel home, turning him into an alcoholic mess. He soon realises that his family back home are all dead and that he is doomed to spend an eternity on a foreign planet thanks to the government and his addictions.
I’ll make it clear now: Nicolas Roeg is the director of four of the best films I’ve ever seen (the others being Performance, Walkabout and Don’t Look Now). But this I think is the greatest science fiction film of the 1970s, and one of the best films ever made. Roeg’s a fantastic director who makes his films look distant and dreamy one minute, and hard and stark the next. With The Man Who Fell to Earth, he grabbed Bowie at a point when his drug use was out of control and he himself felt alienated about living in America. This is clearly what forms part of Bowie’s quite unique performance, not to mention the rarity in a musician managing to not just act, but led. Of course, he’s supported well with a fine cast including Candy Clark as Mary-Lou – his poor, simple, but ultimately kindhearted lover on Earth, and Rip Torn as the college professor who befriends Newton during his own relatively short life.
There’s a lot going on here; there’s a SF film about an alien trying to get back to his home planet, a study of a man out of place within a society and culture he doesn’t fully understand and a heart-wrenching story depicting the isolation of a creature who perceives time differently and ages at a slower rate than those he comes to care for. It’s a study of addiction – specifically alcoholism – and how power can corrupt. All the while, Roeg manages to play with the audience’s perception of how a narrative flows (Newton’s lack of ageing is introduced so subtly that you can miss it) in order to tell a story. The Man Who Fell to Earth is, quite simply, a film I can go back to over and over again and always spot something I’ve missed.
So, somewhere out there there’s a universe where people cosplay at massive conventions dressed as Thomas Newton and where Nicolas Roeg has directed a set of prequels. It’s a lovely thought isn’t it? And there might even be a Starman living there as well.