I believe I’ve intimated this before, but I’m a huge fan of science fiction movies, especially the really thoughtful ones that use the sense of another world to reveal truths about our own. Given that my past several reviews have been timely, I’m going the Second Breakfast route; since I’ve been stuck in bed feeling like Werner Herzog pulled a boat over my body, I decided to check out some sci-fi flicks I’ve been intending to see for a while. So, this review is the first part of a Science Fiction Double Feature—both movies following an alien who comes to Earth and tries to enter society—and I’m going to break up the reviews in A-Movie/B-Movie format. Although I love B-Movies, I’m using the term here to refer to the one that I think would deserve second billing. So, without further ado….
Plot: Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is an alien who has come to Earth in order to build a fortune through technological patents, all in the hope of building technology in order to save his draught-stricken home planet.
Pretty straight-forward, actually, for what is a decidedly un-straight-forward movie. As some of you familiar with director Nicolas Roeg‘s work might expect (I’m not familiar, but have definitely gotten this impression), the style is largely experimental and is certainly more of the 2001: A Space Odyssey ilk than, say, Star Wars. Now, I am in no way trying to say that either of those styles (experimental vs. narrative-driven) is inherently better or more thoughtful. But The Man Who Fell to Earth definitely takes its time to develop the story, and the story is definitely subsidiary to some of the ideas and moods it’s throwing around.
Those ideas and moods do not necessarily do enough on their own. Maybe this gets too close to personal preference terrain, but I thought the major questions being put forward by this movie weren’t really questions, but indictments. “Television culture and alcohol are a part of America’s materialist culture!” “America’s materialist culture is making people empty pieces of waste!” “Institutions like academia and the government ruin originality and support emptiness!” I mean, these things are quite plainly shouted at you, unless I missed the point entirely (which I won’t bar as a possibility). But when you get the eighth shot of Newton watching television with an empty stare in order to reflect the way that these surface values have destroyed his ingenuity and innocence, it’s hard not to roll your eyes. Maybe this was poignant in the 1970s, but it hardly feels so now.
So much of this movie is dedicated to Newton’s degradation: when he first arrives, he has to sell his wedding ring for cash. As he becomes richer, he loves only television and drink, forgetting his dying family at home. When anyone learns about Newton’s nonhuman disposition, everyone freaks out at the truth. Sex is often cross-cut with violence to emphasize its meaninglessness, at least in the contexts portrayed in the film. This world (read: America, and notably, an America as seen by a British director) is clearly obsessed with surface values, and that point is belabored over almost two and a half hours.
That being said, the direction is often well-done. Cross-cutting is a major technique, and while I might find the messages being sent a bit too easy, the director communicates them very well. Sex becomes disturbing and hard to watch. The world becomes a disturbing caricature. The past and present become almost indistinguishable, as do the barriers separating our consciousnesses. All of this is thanks to great editing and intelligent camerawork.
Sadly, though, a lot of the aesthetic is so entrenched in 1970s style that it has caused the movie to age rather poorly. Star Wars, for all its narrative stylistics associated with movies from the era, has aged remarkably well for the most part. 2001: A Space Odyssey definitely has a timeless feel. But The Man Who Fell to Earth is so 1970s that it hurts; just as the messages seem drenched in the mindset of the time period, so to is the style, making a piece that—for all its cleverness—is very, very dated.
Maybe I misread this film entirely. Maybe I am so astonishingly off-point with the themes and style that it bespeaks shallowness on my part more so than the film’s. If so, I am happy to hear why, although readings on it have more or less confirmed my suspicions. The Man Who Fell to Earth is ambitious and intriguing, but its commentary has the depth of the surface-level qualities that it claims as defining modern America.