The Man Who Fell To Earth

(Nicolas Roeg, UK, 1976)


One of the many extraordinary things about Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth is the simple fact that it was made, the tremendous audacity of it as a project: within the framework of a large-budget production with a rock superstar (David Bowie), based on a very solid but very conventional sci-fi novel by Walter Tevis, Roeg turns in an avant-garde spectacular, an openly experimental film which shatters standards of coherence and readability at every turn.

The Man Who Fell To Earth is a distinctly modernist work, a boundlessly imaginative essay on what it means to spin a narrative, to think and create within the science fiction genre, a veritable empire of signs. The essential paradox of SF is exposed once and for all: how can we imagine and represent an Alien, someone utterly different to ourselves, when all we have to work with are earth-given concepts, Western-cultural stereotypes?

The film is, on one level, a deadly joke: when it finally flashes back to glimpses of the alien's former life on his home planet, all we get are the most obvious, familiar images – Bowie waving goodbye to his wife and kids as he steps into his spacecraft, like a soldier going off to war.

The film plays extraordinary games with the notion of narrative time – the accepted convention that a story refers to more events than it can actually show. Roeg gives us some – but only some – of the signs that we can piece together to decide the full time-span of the plot (such as differences in the actors' make-up to signify age). But, simultaneously, the jumps in time from scene to scene seem enormously, excessively large, and are never concretely indicated – while Bowie's alien ages not one second from the film's beginning to its end.

It is almost impossible, in fact, to know just what story the film is relating. Some of the scenes are truly undecidable – they don't even seem to occur within the time-space of the plot. What generates so much of the film's structure is the idea that a potential narrative move can suddenly become actual for a few moments on screen – characters are paired off, sequences are interrelated, possibilities sketched and then discarded.

This formalist or structuralist approach is only one possible way of appreciating the rich text of Roeg's film. Certainly, on a more conventional level, it is a disturbing and moving depiction of the journey of an alien through the earth-culture which destroys him. Roeg's filmic experimentation can also work on an almost abstract, poetic level of sensual saturation.

Roeg encourages this diversity of approaches: his films are like machines, multi-functional, open-ended, generating countless intensities and interrelations, combining and producing an explosion of desire and play that can never be boxed up and sold in order to be quickly, easily consumed. Little wonder that his work looks so strange within the context of the contemporary film industry.

MORE Roeg: Cold Heaven

© Adrian Martin March 1981

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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