Many seem to love this film. To have any such affection for this film, you'd have to give yourself over to it, and, in my opinion, that's very hard to do. Sure, you could appreciate its mildly humorous flourishes, but that's very little to go on. The film has passages that are absurd beyond reason, especially the various sex scenes (the one with the gun full of blanks and the alien-on-alien action are simply risible, despite a friend's pretty solid theory for the latter), and it's nearly impossible to keep track of what's happening beyond a certain point.
At the same time, I'm having a hard time dismissing the film. It's probably because of the hype, or maybe because I love David Bowie's music. I guess it could be because there is some commendable essence here, elicited at times by Anthony B. Richmond's photography. Ultimately, though, no matter how I look at it, the film doesn't work. It's hard to care about the character because his backstory is portrayed in such unappealing ways and also because of the general disorder of the film.
Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, the titular character who has apparently developed patents on his home planet in order to apparently get rich and be able to get back, supposedly with water. (This is all slightly unclear to me.) He's taken on a British persona, even though he doesn't even know the motto of the Royal Guard, and he's often extremely dizzy when traveling fast (he has trouble riding in elevators and traveling faster than 30 mph on the road).
He does indeed make a whole lot of money. He appoints the lawyer he met (Buck Henry) the president of the company he founds and travels out to New Mexico (which is where he crash-landed originally) to apparently scout out a location to build a facility. There, he meets Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel maid with whom he develops a relationship (despite a supposed spouse at home). She's the one who (as has much been remarked upon) gets him to drink alcohol instead of water, which is not a good thing at all. Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (adapting Walter Tevis' novel) could have worked better with this, but instead develops it only slightly, making it feel banal and as weak as the rest of the film.
Also a fixture in the plot is Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), who's both a sexually predacious professor and a thermal photography buff. He gets fired for horrible class reports and his antics, and comes on board at Newton's World Enterprises. Though he comes to be a little more important later on, a fixture is really all he seems to be, perhaps acting as kind of an audience entry point. I don't really know, having possibly forgotten (this film is hardly indelible outside of its ineptitude).
Roeg definitely tries to do some crazy things with the movie, made relatively early on his career. He punctuates the film with abrupt bursts of ironic music, gives random characters narration tracks, tries to document the New Mexico landscape like he did the Australian outback, and goes for broke with outlandish characterizations of extraterrestrials. These things didn't pay off for me, in the same way the atrocious makeup didn't. I was reminded of "Synecdoche, New York," a similarly big-scale and meticulously art-directed production that was assembled in a much better way than this one. Thus, Charlie Kaufman's soared while Roeg's sank.
Do I misunderstand this movie? Possibly, but it frustrated me and not in a pleasant way. It's one of those where nothing technically is really top-of-the-line but it seems like it could possibly make do anyways. It really doesn't, though. I have to say that if you admire the works of any of the participants, you're better off just skipping it, because your perception could be forever altered. I'm really not too sure what to think; it's difficult in the lack of solid redeeming qualities to be found. But, as you can see, even if it's a little imprecise, what I can put together is hardly positive. D