By the mid-70s, David Bowie had essentially fulfilled his own rock ‘n’ roll prophecy and mutated into an alien: skeletally white, crimson-haired and snowblind on a cocktail of substances, he seemed to have shuffled off the ordinary world and ascended to the stars. This process was aided immeasurably when, in 1975, he was cast as Thomas Jerome Newton, the man from another world whose mission of mercy – finding water to rescue his drought-stricken planet – is sidetracked by human interference, scientific backwardness, alcohol and ennui.
Taking only the bare bones of Walter Tevis’s comparatively straightforward sci-fi novel, visionary British director Nicolas Roeg creates something far more slippery and elliptical, a film as much about the fading of the counterculture, wealth-induced apathy and the contagiousness of American culture as anything intergalactic. Bowie’s performance is riveting, drawing on his history of mime to play a man who is almost, but not quite, one of us. Candy Clark, as Newton’s long-suffering drudge Mary Lou, is perhaps even better, a mascara-streaked mess of misguided empathy and fading hope.
It’s not a perfect film – the second half wanders badly, Rip Torn’s blokey scientist Bryce is very much a man of his time and much of the soundtrack is horribly dated: contractual problems prevented Bowie from delivering the score he’d begun work on, though it would go on to inform the electronic soundscapes of ‘Low’. And yet, there are moments here that approach the sublime: Bowie in the mirror with tweezers, extracting his off-coloured eyes; Clark touching his alien body, trying to force herself to love him; endless eye-scorching shots of the American South, of dusty towns and battered billboards and clouds rolling in over the desert – a true alien landscape.