Film series specializes in quirky sci fi

  • By LAURA KWEREL
  • Medill News Service
  • November 06, 2006 @ 6:12 AM
The 1976 cult film, "The Man Who Fell to Earth,'' has some of the trappings of your standard science fiction flick. There are the requisite barren landscapes and a spaceship, however tacky.

But the highly personal film by director Nicolas Roeg, playing Tuesday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is an odd addition to a genre known primarily for outlandish aliens and slick special effects. This quirkiness is exactly why the center's programmers have included the movie in this fall's science fiction film series.

"[Science fiction] is not known for great originality," said Jim Trainor, associate professor of animation at the School of the Art Institute and co-programmer of the series. "But 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' strikes me as being very original and unusual."

The standard alien invasion movie usually goes something like this: Some extra-terrestrials land on Planet Earth in a huge, scary spaceship for no particular reason. Cue suspenseful music, cut to Will Smith, and by the end of the movie, the aliens are destroyed. In "The Man Who Fell to Earth," however, the destruction is much more subtle, Played by David Bowie--then in his late 20s, the alien is himself absorbed by Planet Earth, almost disappearing into its materialistic world of television, liquor and sex.

The opening scene is familiar enough: a spaceship crash-landing into a lake somewhere in the Southwest. But Bowie is not the average extra-terrestrial. Looking like a human, speaking perfect English and going by the name Thomas Newton, Bowie's alien easily assimilates into the American scene. His goal: to gather as much water as possible and bring it back to his parched planet. But once exposed to the capitalistic world of patents, business deals and all the other machinations necessary to build a new spaceship, he forgets his former life. From then on, the film becomes less a sci-fi thriller than an all-too-human story of Newton's slow disintegration.

"It seems realistic in a way that he just sort of ends up getting absorbed by the decadence," said Marty Rubin, associate director of programming at the Siskel Film Center. "The media-saturated environment of the Planet Earth is the real monster."

In addition to its unorthodox take on the science fiction genre, the most interesting element in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" may be David Bowie himself. The other-worldly, pale rock star was an ideal choice for the main character, a melancholy alien with inexplicably good taste in clothes. Indeed, he seems to embody the strange and stylish mood of the film itself.

"[When you] describe the film, you're also describing him," said Rubin. "Even though he's sympathetic, there's something aloof about him that's difficult to grasp, like the film as a whole."

Roeg began his career as a cinematographer and retains his taste for interesting visuals, like the 12 television sets Newton likes to watch simultaneously and the pair of thick, Coke-bottle glasses worn by a main character. But beyond its visual fanciness, the film is memorable because of Bowie's alien. His visitor from a distant planet is more human than most earthlings in the average science fiction movie.

"There are not that many science fiction films where you have a feeling of personal investment," said Trainor. "And this movie seems very personal to me."

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, on Tuesday, November 7 at 4:00 p.m. The Tuesday screening includes a lecture by Jim Trainor. For more information, call (312) 846-2600.

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