Running time: 139 min.
Release date: May 28, 1976 (USA)
Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an extraterrestrial from a desert planet, where he has left behind a wife and children. We cull this fact through the use of flashbacks of Newton saying goodbye to his family in front of their home, which is a strange structure that looks like it's a straw hut on a monorail. Why has he come to Earth? The movie does not jump right out and tell us. We have to piece it together via several scenes, one of which depicts Newton at a stream gathering water into a cup and drinking it very thirstily. He has come to Earth for water to bring back to his dying family. The structure of the story is assembled in such a way that it is slow to provide the plot points that would help the viewer determine exactly what is going on.
Newton hocks a ring to earn some money to seek out a patent attorney, Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Newton has brought to Earth with him several patents that make him a millionaire. One of these patents is for a self-developing film that opens the door for him to create World Enterprises Corporation. He comes back to New Mexico, his original landing point, and meets Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), and they strike up a relationship. She introduces him to such earthly things as alcohol, television and going to church. Eventually television consumes him, as he acquires six or seven sets and watches them all simultaneously. Meanwhile, we get a side story about Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a college professor who has a thing for younger college girls. Once again, the narrative structure of the film confuses the viewer as we have no idea who this character is and what his significance to the plot is until well into the film. Eventually, Bryce comes to work for Newton's corporation as a fuel technician. Bryce is taken into Newton's confidence and learns his true origins. Meanwhile, when Newton reveals to Mary-Lou his true origins, she reacts with horror and shock. His addiction to alcohol and television takes control of him, further distancing himself from Mary-Lou.
Newton tasks his company to get into the space program and build a rocket ship. The viewer is supposed to deduce that Newton is attempting to make it back to his home planet to deliver the water to his family. We get some images of his family, slowly dying while waiting for him to return. Newton has lost focus on what is most important, as the alcohol and television distract him. We get another subplot where the government has been made aware of Newton's origins and a rival company plots a takeover through highly questionable means. These subplots are scattered throughout the film in small doses and were confusing. The characters involved were not introduced in a way that made the viewer aware of who they were, and their motives were muddled.
Bowie is the center of attention in the film. It was a good performance, and his appearance was suited to the character; pale, jaunt and a keen sense of fashion. His final scene was most poignant, as a being who knows he has failed to reach his goals and has taken to alcohol to drown his guilt. Candy Clark also built for herself a strong performance as Mary-Lou. She starts off as a simple girl and eventually develops a clingyness for Newton, even after she initially balked at his alien identity. Rip Torn as Bryce was Rip Torn being the solid character actor that he is.
The issue that proves to keep this film from being entertaining is the structure of the story. The screenplay was written by Paul Mayersberg, based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis. Director Nicolas Roeg could have provided a clearer narrative and developed a decipherable plot. Instead, the viewer is left wondering who characters are, what the motives of Newton should be and fills the movie with imagery that, although impressively shot, don't add anything to the story. One could say that the film is overly pretentious and keeping it simple would have been a much more effective way to tell the story.
The Man Who Fell to Earth delivers a star-making performance by David Bowie but ultimately is inaccessible to the mainstream audience. It's a surreal art film with a barely coherent plot.