An alien (David Bowie in his first starring role) masquerades as wealthy corporate honcho Thomas Jerome Newton to cover up his true mission.
After landing in the American southwest, Newton travels to New York and makes an incredible proposition to patents lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry).
Newton wants Farnsworth to take charge of World Enterprises, a new corporation specialising in electronics. The money for the business venture comes from nine inventions Newton has patented, including one for a self-developing film.
It is revealed that Newton has been sent to Earth in an effort to figure out a way to ship water back to his own drought-stricken planet.
He attempts to do this by introducing various elements of superior alien technology, patenting them and reinvesting profits into an aerospace company that can build his craft.
Newton becomes fabulously wealthy overnight and retreats to a small town in New Mexico, where he sequesters himself in a motel room and watches 12 television sets simultaneously.
He meets maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) and is attracted by her kind simplicity. She becomes his lover, nurse and housekeeper, providing his only human contact apart from Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a despondent chemistry professor hired to work on a fuel-carrying system for the spaceship.
The movie (originally made for television) was certainly groundbreaking in its use of strange flashback/hallucinatory montages, ghostly music (composed by Bowie) and eerie, alien imagery – despite the multiple and overly-pretentious sex scenes.
By his own admission, Bowie was heavily using cocaine in this period and the combination of his elegantly wasted performance and Roeg’s fractured, often startling visuals make for one of the strangest sci-fi films of the era.
Paramount Pictures were willing to back director Nic Roeg after the success of 1973’s Don’t Look Now (1973) but lived to regret their decision, refusing to release Roeg’s finished work.
The original 118-minute version of the film left some gaping plot holes, but the 140-minute director’s cut is far more coherent. Even so, its scattered narrative may alienate some viewers and it remains a piece of challenging science fiction even now.
Thomas Jerome Newton
Jackson D Kane