Thomas Jerome Newton is from another planet. In a piece of canny 1970s casting, he is played by David Bowie.
Newton has come to Earth with a number of extremely valuable patents tucked under his arm. His plan is: find the world's greatest patent attorney, form a gigantic corporation that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars of income, and use the money to -- to -- well, that's the part where I get lost.
Apparently his planet is in trouble. They're all out of water, and they desperately need water to -- to -- well I'm sure they need it to live, but all we ever see in the movie is that they use copious amounts of it in the course of their marital duties. But that's enough, fine. Thomas Jerome Newton needs water or else he can't fly through the air in sexual ecstasy with his wife in huge cascades of water. So he's come to Earth because we have water. It's like we're a giant-sized Pleasure Chest store for him. "Be right back honey, I have to pop down to Earth for some lubricant."
He knows how Earthlings talk and think and what they value. He knows all this because he's been watching our television for decades on his home planet. He knows we're motivated by greed and materialism and he's got a plan to use that greed to make a pile of money and -- and -- well again I'm less clear on that.
After many decades of living on Earth and building his fortune, he builds a spaceship to go back home. What his plan is, I don't know. He's not going to bring back a ton of water to his waterless planet and we've seen that his wife and children are already dead.
Now that I think of it, what's going on on Newton's home planet? There seem to be only three people living there, his wife and kids. They don't have a house or food, all they have is a charmingly home-made papier-mache beehive with sails that trundles along on a track. Yet somehow they got it together to send Newton to another planet, so presumably there's a space center somewhere with rockets and a launchpad and people running it and all that stuff you need to send people into space. Otherwise, why wouldn't Newton just bring his wife and kids along?
But no, they stay behind and never age, because apparently the folks on Newton's home planet don't age, even the children remain the same size for decades. And they wait by the trundling beehive, because -- because -- well I'm not clear on that either. I think the trundling beehive is the planet's mass-transit system, but since the beehive has stopped permanently in one spot there doesn't seem to be much reason to wait there for Daddy to come home.
Anyway, after a very long time, Newton compiles his wealth to build a spaceship to get back home. I don't know what he's going to do once he gets home, maybe he's just a scout for Earth and he's setting up his gigantic corporation so that he can start bringing his people here and have them live in splendor.
Just as he's getting ready to get on his spaceship to go home, he gets kidnapped by -- by -- by an evil somebody, and his patent attorney is killed by the same evil somebody. It's unclear. Is it another corporation, is it the government? Somebody wants to derail Newton's plans and they will stop at nothing to do it.
Newton is placed in exile in a hotel under guard. He is studied by scientists. The scientists seem both convinced that there's nothing unusual about Newton and convinced that he is an alien. In any case they make him very uncomfortable and he has no choice but to take comfort in large amounts of gin.
Eventually everyone loses interest in him and he escapes out into the world. He makes a recording to be broadcast into space where his wife might hear it. We never hear the recording but I'm guessing the message on it is something like: "Dear Wife: had a plan to use human greed to get water to us so we could have sex again but got screwed over by the same human greed I was hoping to exploit. Never coming back. Sorry. Best to the kids. PS: Don't wait by the Beehive Station lying in the sand for decades -- for God's sake GO HOME!"
Strictly speaking, the movie falls into science-fiction, but as we can see, it is not the nuts-and-bolts wing of the genre but rather the spiritual/societal analysis wing. Indeed, the movie is content to explain very little at all, in spite of being well over two hours long.
The production design is perfunctory. Newton's inventions, which are supposed to be futuristic and amazing, are clunky, ugly and unappealing. His rocket-building center is housed within a grain-elevator complex with nothing but chain-link fences for security. Decades pass within but it remains steadfastly 1976. Earthlings get old and grey and fat but records are still pressed on vinyl and cost less than five dollars, men still wear polyester leisure suits, and Newton even drives the same car throughout. It's as though Newton's arrival on Earth brought the evolution of human design to a screeching halt.
The movie's strategy of ignoring explanations has its strengths. It's moody and jarring and elusive, and Bowie is cooler than cool as the slowly dissipating visitor who becomes, alas, too accustomed to Earth ways. In fact, I think that's the real point of the movie after all, not to tell the story of aliens and government conspiracies but to dramatise the story of an idealistic young man who enters the world with a clear purpose and to show his increasing anxiety at being co-opted, distracted and annihlated by the inevitable crushing forces of capitalist greed and human frailty. (Bowie, apparently, felt a strong connection to the character -- he used images from the movie on two consecutive album covers -- but did he realize that he, too, would eventually become human, falling from stardom to mere showbizhood? Or is that, in fact, the subtext to his performance?)
This being the 70s, there's also lots of nudity.
David Bowie would later reprise the "weird guy with a miraculous invention" role in The Prestige
. Rip Torn, who plays the only guy who knows Newton's secret, would reprise the "guy who knows there are aliens on Earth" role in the Men in Black
The Criterion edition helpfully includes a copy of the original novel, which I have not read, but which I presume holds many of the answers to the movie's narrative ellipses.