There are two things I really like about this movie. Unfortunately, they're overshadowed by the rest of the movie. I love the premise: An alien travels to earth to get water for his dying planet. To fund the return trip to his planet, he patents several pieces of his own technology on Earth. He starts a company that quickly grows into one of the largest technology providers on the planet. However, he doesn't account for things like love, television, alcohol or excessively ruthless business competition. Alas, director Nicholas Roeg doesn't seem too interested in the SF portions of the film, instead attempting to delve deeper into the critique of human excesses by portraying the downward spiral of an alien who eventually succumbs to the various pressures of human life. As such, the plot ends up being razor thin and filled with holes. SF stories almost always boil down to basic human dramas, so I don't blame Roeg for being more interested in telling that part of the story, but the movie is quite sloppy with its science (the film is based on a novel, so I'm actually not sure all the blame lies with Roeg). I think Roger Ebert summed it up best in his review with this line: "...there's nothing more frustrating than asking logical questions about a movie that insists on being visionary."
The other thing that really works well in the film is the casting of David Bowie as the alien visitor. His gaunt, androgynous appearance is an eerily perfect fit. His subdued performance is good as well, though as Ebert notes, he "flirts with the catatonic." Supporting roles are somewhat interesting. Candy Clark plays a naive hotel worker who falls for Bowie. This odd relationship starts out very interesting, but progresses awkwardly and doesn't end well. Rip Torn plays a scientist who works for Bowie and eventually figures out what Bowie really is. Buck Henry has an interesting part as the lawyer who runs Bowie's company. His character also appears to be in a gay relationship, but this is only hinted at.
Come to think of it, the entire film is really a series of interesting ideas that are only hinted at - a perfect example of playing obscurity for depth. Some films can get away with this because they require you to piece the story together for yourself, but that didn't work so well for this movie. Roeg tries his best to stylize the movie, and there are indeed a lot of interesting visual shots in the film. He uses cross cutting a lot, though I'd say the editing of the film in general isn't very well done. There is a lot going on in the movie, but none of it seems to fit together very well.
In the end, it's an interesting movie with some good ideas, but I found the execution lacking. Most critics seem to love it even though many acknowledge the complaints I mention above. On the other hand, Kaedrin commenters noted that the film was "BORING" and "extremely tedious," so it's nice to know that I'm not alone. Filmspotting will be handing out their marathon awards on Friday, at which point I'll probably post my own... ** (out of 4)