A film rich enough to be read about a dozen different ways, Nicolas Roeg’s trippy 1976 genre picture uses an extraterrestrial tale to examine the immigrant experience, the discomfiting marriage of art and commerce and the nature of cultural imperialism. But in a broad sense, it’s a story, much like Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” about the overwhelming isolation experienced by those who dream the biggest dreams and then have the fortune (and misfortune) to have their ambitions realized.
Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), equal parts Howard Hughes and Nikola Tesla, is an alien from outer space who’s left his water-starved planet to secure some much-needed H2O from Earth. In America, Newton, disguised as a human, plays the role of a reclusive, obsessive British inventor, and uses money accrued from his remarkable tech inventions to try to build a spaceship that can return him with water to whence he came. In the meanwhile, he immerses himself in the free-for-all that is American culture and becomes the leading innovator on the planet. But more money means more problems, and soon Newton is whisked from his remote New Mexico desert home by some evil capitalists who want to know who and what he is.
Newton is transformed into an otherworldly guinea pig by his captors, poked and prodded by corporate medicos, who decide to X-ray the strange man’s eyes, not realizing that they will permanently solder his fake human eyes over his real ones. Once the deed is done, the inventor screams in horror: “They’re stuck. I’ll never get them off!” Newton knows that he’ll never be able to see things the same way anymore. For the immigrant, artist and industrialist, things have gone too far and he can never go home again.•