Star Wars came out the year after Nicolas Roeg's enigmatic sci-fi film (re-released now in an uncut version), and after that no studio was likely to make anything similar again, nor would many audiences have the patience to watch it. It was tough going even then, though fans of Tarkovskiy's Solaris (1972) and Kubrick's 2001 (1968) could likely appreciated its meditative approach to a traditionally pulpy genre. Those familiar with Roeg's previous films such as Walkabout (1972), Don't Look Now (1973), and especially Performance (1970), were also prepared not only for the disjointed editing, the skewed imagery, and elliptical narrative, but also the theme of being a stranger in a strange land, of the utter alien-ness of just being alive.
Or of being David Bowie. As Thomas Jerome Newton, he is the film's most impressive special effect. Pale, epicene, and as scrawny as a figure in an Egon Schiele painting, he falls to earth and presents a valise full of inventions to Farnsworth (Buck Henry), a patent lawyer. "With these you can take on RCA, DuPont, Eastman Kodak, for starters," Farnsworth tells him incredulously. And so he does.
For what purpose? The film offers something like an explanation, but — unlike Don't Look Now — it's no gripping mystery. And the paranoid subplot pales before the diabolical madness of Performance. Instead, the film evokes the oppression of sublunary existence, the void of a mid-'70s American culture drearier than the desert of Newton's home planet. Roeg doesn't shy from caricature, but he also creates in Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), the blowsy chambermaid who falls in love with Newton, and Bryce (Rip Torn), the cynical scientist who befriends him, characters capable of pathos and tragedy.
And though Roeg's special effects looked hokey even 35 years ago, some of the technological elements of the film have proven oddly prescient. Newton's self-developing camera is as close to digital as analog can get, and his compulsion to watch a dozen TVs at once prefigures the multiple distractions of the Internet. "The strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell you everything." Newton muses. "It shows you everything about life for nothing, but the true mysteries remain." As so do those in this haunting, infuriating movie.