Thomas Jerome Newton is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. He starts a high technology company to get the billions of dollars he needs to build a return spacecraft, and meets Mary-Lou, a girl who falls in love with him. He does not count on the greed and ruthlessness of business here on Earth, however.
Directed by: Nicolas Roeg
. Starring: David Bowie
, Rip Torn
, Candy Clark
, Buck Henry
, Bernie Casey
, Jackson D. Kane
, Rick Riccardo
, Tony Mascia
, Linda Hutton
, Hilary Holland
, Adrienne Larussa
, Lilybelle Crawford
, Richard Breeding
. Music by: John Phillips
, Stomu Yamashta
There's a review somewhere that refers to this as 'brilliant film but quite confusing'. It begs the question, if it's so confusing, how do you get to the conclusion that it's brilliant? This is one of those films that receives adoration from a certain species (I use the word intentionally) of film fan. Shot with an eye for the glaring, disjointed and interesting image, there is a sense that the awkwardness of the editing is designed to push the viewer around, make you squirm in your aesthetic seat and never allow you an easy ride.
However... This is a film that (like other Roeg films) by trying not to have its cake and not eat it, manages to be a failure as either a story or a work of art. It's not interesting or original enough, not enjoyable or meaningful, certainly not cohesive enough, it's exploitative and obsessive, not to mention borderline schizophrenic. It's a complete dead loss.
Some admire it for its disjointedness, its refusal to come together into a cohesive unity. But Roeg was clearly a director unaware of his own inability, with the film equivalent of Tourettes. Scenes of visual grandeur pop up next to long sequences of monosyllabic narrative, suddenly skipping almost to another story altogether, without any explanation of what has happened or why. It thinks it's supposed to challenge the viewer, but it's just stupid. Roeg thought he was doing something intelligent, something with energy or creative crispness, but he simply doesn't have the ability to make it so. He thinks it's very cleverly compiled, but he lacks the artistic nous to see that it just fails. Films can be visually artistic without much concern for narrative, or highly narrative without visual complexity. They can be a marriage of both. Roeg wants this to be neither, not an unremitting art piece, not a narrative drama. He manages this with aplomb - hence, it's rubbish. In so many ways it's just 'that' far from being something really good, but it's just 'that' far from it in every scene and in every aspect.
Again, there's a lot written here about the fabulous cast performances, especially from David Bowie. David Bowie does not provide a fabulous performance. He's essentially quite good at looking alien. He's David Bowie. His reactions and emotional performance, like every other in the film, are broken, jerky, unreal and entirely without development. There isn't a single actor who manages to bring anything beyond two dimensions.
In addition, we are regularly subjected to Roeg's standard obsession with visual, graphic, aggressive sex scenes. These are over-long, uninformative, utterly irrelevant to the plot (except in establishing Tommy's personal submission to self-indulgence - a single suggestive scene would have tied that one up), and so boringly suggestive as to be laughable.
At one point we are subjected to the vision of him having sex in his alien nature. This is shot in a dance-like, psychedelic manner, with bodies flying through black space and crashing around each other in a flurry of spuming, foaming semen, evidently oozing from their every pore. This scene goes on for an age, Roeg obsessing in this orgy of spattering cum. It's bizarre not so much in its mechanics as in its sheer, ridiculous length.
Again, towards the end of the film, we see him having a late roll in the sack with Mary-Lou, firing off blanks from a pistol as he goes. Again it's shot in a visually mobile way, with strobe lighting and multiple cuts. Again, it goes on for ever, making sure we get as many groin shots of both participants as possible. You'd think Roeg was fully perverse, though I would be amazed by anyone even remotely titillated by all those wobbly bits. It's ridiculously long, symbolically pathetic (the gun as metaphorical penis - who would have thought of that? And shown again, and again, and again...), and serves to completely interrupt the viewer for a good five minutes or so - in film terms, aeons. And by the way, firing blanks from a gun at close range? That would cause massive injury, due to the wadding and explosive discharge from the barrel - I'm just saying!
Many people make such a noise about how fabulous this film is, but it's a shining example of the emperor's new clothes. The disjointedness of the piece is intended to be brilliantly artistically challenging, but it just isn't - its weirdness is shouted from the rooftops, but at best all it is is just that - weird! It remains pointless. It doesn't satisfy on any level. And the assertion that it's not supposed to, for one thing, doesn't mean anything from a filmic point-of-view and, secondly, doesn't answer to the stupid randomness and inconsistency of its construction. Much of it is shot beautifully... but I've no idea why. I'm not sure why anyone thought it was something that needed making.
There are the foundations of several different, potentially interesting films here. The sci-fi story, with its intensity and personal drama, could have been engaging with someone like Bowie in the lead - but it was never made to be so. The strange, characterful photography could have made an atmospheric, eerie and captivating work of film art - but that's not what the director wanted. The bizarreness of Tommy's world, the actions of the people in it, could have formed a thrilling narrative about thought control, the hatred and fear of the other and the nature of greed - but these things were barely hinted at.
I'm getting tired just thinking about it. If there is an empty two-and-a-half-hour slot in your life, go and do something else with it. This was never worth anybody losing that for. Tommy strives, in his mind at least, to get back to his wife and children, to be with the ones he loves. My advice is, instead of watching this film, go and do just that.
Review by Nooblethenood from the Internet Movie Database.