Beginning with Space Oddity, released days after man stepped onto the moon, and from there to Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie personified the extraterrestrial. This interest in space would remain a defining theme through the end of his life. Bowie’s first major film role was in the 1976 THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH directed by Nicolas Roeg. Bowie stars as an alien come to earth who develops an interest in the transference of energy. Becoming an inventor and chief of a conglomerate he patents nine new technologies—he creates self-developing film and tries to build a water-transporting spaceship to bring him home. However, the temptations of humankind overwhelm him.
His second major role in a feature film was in the 1986 film LABYRINTH in which he stars and sings; Jim Henson directs the film. LABYRINTH is a frightening children’s film intended for ages eight and over. It is a riff on Cinderella, Snow White, and The Wizard of Oz but is more closely linked to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The film is about a girl on a journey to rescue her baby brother from the Goblin King. She lives in a world of fantasy and comes to realize that her worldly possessions are junk: friendship and dreams are what matter. Bowie, the Goblin King, lives in her fantasy world and tries to lure her with the gift of making all her dreams come true. Again, he has powers out of this world.
In Christopher Nolan's dueling-illusionists 2006 drama THE PRESTIGE, Bowie was cast as the great inventor Nikola Tesla. Bowie represents a world of technology so advanced, it literally appears to be magic. Though hardly recognizable from one film to the next, both Bowie’s Tesla and his alien in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH are otherworldly visionaries revered and reviled for their gifts.
In the 2016 sequel to THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, a musical composed by Bowie called LAZARUS at the New York Theatre Workshop, Michael C. Hall takes over as a gin-drinking, Fruit Loop-eating, television-watching loner still dreaming of his home planet. Bowie, who died January 10, 2016, released a final music video days before his death, while LAZARUS was still running, and the video takes place on an alien planet. Its release portents him returning home. Now, we may feel as though he has.
As a tribute to Bowie, the Museum of the Moving Image will screen LABYRINTH January 31 in Astoria, Queens following an afternoon screening of a new compilation of Jim Henson’s THE MUPPET SHOW. Both are part of an ongoing Jim Henson series at the Museum. The Museum’s permanent Henson gallery will be opening soon.