But this is no ordinary sci-fi film and the lead actor is no ordinary pop star.
The Man Who Fell To Earth presents a thought-provoking and often mystifying drama which explores a variety of issues relevant to contemporary times: What it's like to be a foreigner in a strange land - playing on the ambiguous American usage of the word 'alien'; the power of technology to transform lives and generate wealth; corruption at individual, corporate and government level; images we have of what an extra-terrestrial ought to look like.
There have been countless movie portrayals of extra-terrestrial beings, though many people might find this alien to be not quite what they would expect.
Would a 'real' alien speak with an English art school accent, wear a trilby hat and have a penchant for all things Japanese? Maybe or maybe not, but that's beside the point. The film is not trying to create a convincing scenario, but is playing - almost in a tongue-in-cheek fashion - images and concepts, set within the context of the United States of the mid-70s.
There's no doubt that David Bowie has the physical characteristics of how we might imagine a person from another planet to be. From his first appearance stumbling down a hillside in New Mexico, to the scene where he discards his humanoid trappings and emerges from behind the bathroom door in his true alien state, David Bowie is the quintessential alien and it's doubtful whether any other actor on Earth could have done it better. The alien revelation bathroom scene is now recognised as one of the scariest moments in British cinema history, and is an iconic image of David Bowie.
There is always a question mark over whether a pop stars can act, though in the case of this one, there probably wasn't much acting involved. Drama has played an essential role in David Bowie's on-stage persona, which overlaps a great deal with the character he is playing here. The frail emaciated body, the air of physical and psychological vulnerability, the translucent skin, androgynous facial features and bone structure, combining the debonair qualities of a classic British actor with the sculpted ice queen attributes of a Hollywood diva, all combine to create a compelling on-screen presence that's perfect for the film.
Once you've seen him imbibing water from a river in New Mexico, quenching a thirst of intergalactic proportions, a glass of the clear stuff will never taste the same again. Water has a special significance in the film, and in the world today. I'm writing this 30 years after the film was made in a country - the Philippines - where fresh water is still in short supply. And 10 years after the film was made it took an Irish pop star to shake up the world and bring food and water to drought-ridden Africa.
In the dream-like images of the alien with his wife and children, the beings wear a type of space suit in which water is pumped through transparent tubes. The concept is thatt like gold on Earth, water on the alie's planet is a precious commodity and used in clothing as a status symbol. These images have a poignant quality we can relate to in a way that wasn't possible with the traditional type of alien as reptilian killing machine. The bleak landscape of his home planet, the surreal but beautiful figures, the strange monorail house that looks remarkably like the Manchester Metropolitan University 'Toast Rack' building near my home in Manchester, set to an atmospheric score, are unlike anything seen before or since in a science fiction film. Insights into the design and cinematography of the film are provided on the DVD in the accompanying documentary.
The eclectic background music gives the film a special quality. David Bowie was to have provided the music but for various reasons it wasn't used. The music he created became the Low album, released in 1977, and one of my all time favourite pieces of music. John Phillips stepped in to compile a weird and wonderful basket of music with all kinds of influences. Holst's Planets Suite, Bluegrass, Country and Weatern, what sounds like Erik Satie, trad jazz, weird and repetitive machine-like music, all are combined with the action to incongruous and puzzling effect.
The film has many atmospheric moments that are worth playing again and again: My favourites are the visions of the alien's family, happy glimpses of his relationship with Mary Lou, the view of New York from night to morning, set to Holst's Planets Suite. Another memorable moment is when driving in his Limo, Newton's special powers allow him to see settlers from the previous century - and they can see his car. I can relate to this as when visiting historic places, I like to visualise how people and places in past times must have looked.
When I read the book by Walter Tevis I found the story to be more coherent than the film, which is often disjointed, erratic and leaves many gaps.
And while the earlier sections of the film seem to promise much, the latter part slides into cynicism, negativity and aimlessness, rather like the lead character himself. Don't expect a triumphal climax and a Hollywood-style happy ending. This movie, like Nicholas Roeg's other output, defies convention and refuses to pander to audience expectations. It probably couldn't be made today in the same way.
But whilst I find Nicholas Roeg's 'Walkabout' and 'Don't Look Now' to be perfectly crafted masterpieces, for me, 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' is strangely dissatisfying and leaves me feeling ill-at-ease. Still, there is enough here to provide a wealth of inspiration and visual stimulation. Scenes from the film still resonate with me today and I enjoy replaying them on my mental cinema screen.
Viewers should be warned that there is some sexual content, some of it verging on gratuitous, and other scenes some may find shocking, making it unsuitable for certain age groups and communities.
The DVD format adds an extra element to the film, making it possible to play and replay certain sequences. There is an interesting documentary about the making of the film, including an interview with Nicholas Roeg, Candy Clark but not David Bowie. A PDF of the original press information leaflet makes fascinating reading. I used the artwork to make the review image used to present this article.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is almost but not quite one of my favourite films of all time, but it has had a profound effect on me. It has inspired and motivated me in my own creative work, which is why I have highlighted it here.
The Man Who Fell To Earth: Aspects relevant to the content of imagesofcities.com
Breathtaking cinematography by DOP Anthony Richmond that is often as good as stills photography, with inspiring landscape views of New Mexico, as well as a nighttime to daytime cityscape of Midtown Manhattan near Time Square
Issues surrounding travel to an unknown environment - what it's like to be an alian - in this case British - in a strange land.
Interesting technological future-gazing - the film accurately predicts a future of easy photography, single use cameras, compact music recording and playback media (though in the form of a tiny ball shaped like an amulet rather than the compact disc which came out 7 years after the film was made.
Principle filming locations was Artesia, New Mexico, USA, as well as Albuquerque, New York. Interior scenes were shot at Shepperton Studios in the UK.
This article was self-commissioned and first published on the website imagesofcities.com on 11 February 2005. Words copyright Aidan O'Rourke and may not be used without permission.