A traveller from a faraway world (David Bowie) lands in a lake on Earth, makes his way through the American countryside and reaches a small town. There he lies down on a bench outside of a loans establishment until it opens, and when it does he offers a ring in return for twenty dollars, showing a British passport bearing the name Thomas Jerome Newton as proof of identity. Yet the true identity of "Newton" must be kept secret as he sets the ball rolling on his grand plan to bring water back to the desert world he comes from.
However, he is reckoning without being corrupted by his environment, just as the act of observing changes the observed, imagine the impact Newton has on Earth and vice versa. The Man Who Fell To Earth was drawn from the novel by Walter Tevis by Paul Mayersberg and brought to life by two men at the height of their seventies cool: Bowie and director Nicolas Roeg. In the title role, Bowie persuaded with a genuinely otherworldly personality and appearance, looking so fragile that a stiff breeze might knock him over.
As for Roeg, his various tricks with narrative and vision tried the patience of many who watched the film, but it was all towards a recreation of the United States as it might have been seen by a visitor, whether from Britain as he and Bowie were, or from outer space as Newton was. And as far as that goal went, it was difficult to deny his success, which may well have meant the experience was confusing and prone to loose ends, but also became an almost hallucinatory trip through human foibles and flaws.
That grand plan of Newtons is to bring nine brand new patents to Earth, which he does to lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), who tells him he could make three hundred million dollars from them and is shocked when Newton tells him this is not enough. Nevertheless, events are set in motion and exciting new ways of photography and listening to music are introduced into society, all thanks to the corporation that Newton has set up with him as a Howard Hughes like genius behind it, both reclusive and increasingly a victim to his insecurities and (justifiable) paranoia.
Although Newton is married on his home world, he strikes up a relationship with a chambermaid who helps him when the speed of a hotel elevator causes a nosebleed and a fainting spell. She is Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a naive chatterbox who has no inkling for quite a lot of the film that the man she has fallen in love with is not from around here, in spite of his enigmatic pronouncements. They set up home together in a house beside the lake Newton landed in, and he prepares to use his cash to build a spaceship aimed at home.
He does this with the help of womanising scientist Bryce (Rip Torn), but there's trouble on the horizon for both Newton and his cohorts. The U.S. government and the megacorporations of that country are not best pleased with the visitor's amassing of all the profits, and see to it that his mission is sabotaged. But was it Newton's weaknesses that put paid to his ambitions? As he grows more dependent on alchohol and television, his initiative is drained away and he watches those around him grow old while he stays the same, corrupted by humanity into loneliness and failure. On one level the film is cold and cynical and needlessly obscure, but on another it has a fascination telling an all too recognisable tale of mankind's weaknesses, deeply sorrowful in its lead character's predicament. When the waiter says he thinks Mr Newton has had enough, you're inclined to agree. Music by John Phillips.