276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I have no idea what that was about. Was it about alcoholism? Was it about corporate realities? Was it about sex? Was it about nothing?” –P.C. Clair

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, , , Bernie Casey

PLOT: In a desperate bid to mitigate a drought back on his home planet, a humanoid alien is sent to Earth: “The Planet of Water,” in his people’s language. Adopting the name Thomas Newton, he sets about establishing a technology company, World Enterprises, to fund his mission and design a vessel to allow his return. During his stay on Earth, the combined distractions of a young woman and alcohol (an even greater love) nearly break him, and he feels forced to hasten his decampment.

Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name.
  • The unfortunate mix of cocaine abuse and emotional detachment that overwhelmed Bowie during and after the filming meant that the actor/singer’s planned soundtrack for the film never came into fruition. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas fame) was pulled in last minute to create the soundtrack before the premier.
  • Candy Clark played both Newton’s lover, Mary-Lou, and his wife on his home world. In a small turn for a third “role”, she appeared as Thomas Newton himself during a brief scene — exiting the World Trade Center—when Bowie himself was unavailable.
  • Wanting a “big name” for the lead, the movie’s backers were pushing for Robert Redford to play Newton. Fate–and budget restrictions—fortunately got in the way.
  • The U.S. distributor cut about twenty to thirty minutes out of the film, making it more confusing than the (already challenging) director’s cut, and leading to some bad initial reviews.
  • In 1987 the same story was adapted less successfully for a television movie starring the undistinguished Lewis Smith.
  • In 2015, in one of his last creative works, Bowie co-wrote “Lazarus,” a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth; one theater critic wrote that “What they have created makes perilously little sense,” but “it’s nearly impossible not to be persuaded and baffled and at least a little thrilled.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a David Bowie 1970s cult science-fiction movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, one expects to find a lot of shots that are “indelible.” However, the most memorable (and distressing) occurs when we find Thomas Newton in his media room. Beginning with a creepy stare and a rictus smile, he gazes at a bank of televisions all wired together to a remote on his viewing throne. His mania and desperation break through the audio-visual spasms pouring from the cathode ray screens as he begins shouting, “leave me alone!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Never enough televisions ; glitter-helmet assassins ; I see the past and it sees me

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Without David Bowie’s presence, this movie would still make the “Certified” cut— but much less readily. The ambiguity of the narrative, boldness of the visual style, and abstruseness of the soundscape all work together to form a solidly weird experience. David Bowie acts, as it were, like the prodigious amount of frosting on this weird layer cake. Depending upon your view, Bowie was very good at acting like someone who’s an alien— or maybe didn’t need to “act” at all.


Original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

COMMENTS: What would the people of Earth do with a space visitor? How would the traveler cope? When faced with an unrelenting genius, Earth’s populace would no doubt happily reap the benefits of the foreigner’s knowledge—until that foreigner made a misstep. Hurtling to our planet with a singular mission—gathering water—we find Bowie as our alien, a humanoid posing as the British national “Thomas Newton.” Newton’s veneer of normality carries him through his shaky early introductions, but everyone who meets him knows something is a bit off. Though this extraterrestrial seems to grasp the exterior trappings of humanity, two things work against him from the get-go: he gives the world too much of what it wants, and he has the effrontery to keep himself to himself.

Nicolas Roeg’s science fiction classic The Man Who Fell to Earth has the feel of an epic as viewed through a peephole. “Hard science” abounds at the periphery—the little seen visiting (and exiting) spacecraft, technological wonders brought to Earth from alien knowledge, a distant planet with an implied society and ecosystem—but the focus here is not on the whiz-bang effects of revolutionary machines. Thomas Newton starts his life on our world in a burnt out rust belt city: Haneyville, elev. 2,850 feet. After selling off a series of wedding rings, his life flashes forward to the apartment of Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), a patent lawyer in New York City. Soon Newton’s company, World Enterprises, dominates all the technological fields and he begins his true mission. But he meets a girl, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), in the classic boy-alien-meets-girl-human vein of storytelling. Simultaneously a blessing and a curse, she provides him much needed personal attachment but also introduces him to alcohol. At first seen drinking only water, he is soon seen drinking only gin. Even when he gets his act together and hurtles full bore toward his goal, barely glimpsed powers behind the scenes strike at his naïve efforts and thwart what should have been his glorious return home.

Narratively, The Man Who Fell to Earth adopts a wonderfully ambiguous tone. With the ominous character on the hill observing Newton’s arrival, we’re tipped off that  someone knows what’s going on—but that someone is neither the visitor nor the audience. Drips and drops of conspiracy further lace the story. A business competitor of Newton’s—a taciturn fellow referred to only as “Peters” (Berney Casey)—meets with some apparatchik concerning the meteoric rise of World Enterprises. Dots are further laid down on the page without connecting lines: Newton’s driver on the car phone; Farnsworth approached by two earnest gentlemen in riot helmets; the affable scientists probing Newton. Other strains of narrative exist for the taking, for though we know more of what’s going on than Newton, we don’t know much more. Like him, we’re left with the tragic question, “Why did it have to end this way?”

The visuals stand out in two ways. First, there’s Bowie’s alien, with his shock of orange hair and pale, emaciated body housing a brilliant but fragile mind. Second, there’s Earth’s strangeness as seen from the alien’s perspective. One of Newton’s first encounters occurs at a derelict fair ground: an unmoored bouncy castle flops ominously in the wind and a drunk on a carnival ride shouts at him between swigs from a bottle. The bombardment of television is constant, peaking with Bowie’s Newton at his nadir, shouting viscerally at a bank of said machines to “leave me alone!” The violence of media is matched only by the violence of sex, established early on in a scene of Newton at a kabuki performance interspliced with the libidinous adventures of professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn). And, of course, there’s the (Hello) Mary-Lou scene. With triple-phallus imagery (revolver, banana, and Bowie’s penis) and violent editing, Newton fully embraces the degradation foisted upon him by his human hosts as he romps with his wife’s proxy. Commercialism, corporatism, alcoholism, and isolation have, by the film’s end, shattered the gentle traveler.

Roeg’s greatest achievement in The Man Who Fell to Earth is that his story, sporting the veneer of “science fiction,” is actually about disintegration of the mind. As a performer, David Bowie was in a very brittle state at the time of filming. His career had flared up into something so large it was in danger of incinerating him, and that makes the detachment of his performance seem so very natural. Rip Torn shines as a chemist whose love of “skirt” grows into a rekindled love for science. Candy Clark’s Mary-Lou radiates a simple honesty that Newton needs; worlds apart from her in intellectual sophistication, she acts as an anchor in an otherwise disingenuous world. In a way, the story of The Man Who Fell to Earth isn’t Newton’s, but rather the collected stories of those he encounters. As the years and decades go by for his friends, Newton remains fixed. Like a new toy, Newton is played with until his novelty wears off. One can’t but help smirk sadly at the end when the waiter sums things up, “I think Mr. Newton has had enough, don’t you?”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie is weird in its juxtapositions of the banal and the metaphysical… Still, there are a few things in this strange film that are really very good… The development of the love relationship between the alien and the simple young girl, for example, is accomplished rather well.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Times (contemporaneous)

“Among the most bizarre films in Nicolas Roeg’s oeuvre… The narrative of the film seems like a fairly straightforward sci-fi setup, but Roeg turns it into something mysterious, elliptical, and poetic.”–Matt Noller, Slant (DVD)

“Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth is rereleased after 40 years and it looks more exotic, more preposterous, more fascinating than ever, like a hyper-evolved midnight movie in the manner of Roger Corman.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (2016 re-release)

IMDB LINK: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) – The Criterion Collection – They may not have the rights to the film anymore, but the Criterion page still has the original trailer, a video essay on the film’s sound design, and prose essays from Graham Fuller and Robert Lloyd

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)  – Producer Robert Fox and Michael C. Hall (who played Thomas Newton Bowie’s musical version of the film) discuss The Man Who Fell to Earth for the BBC

David Bowie’s ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ Co-Star on His ‘Heavenly’ First Movie Role – After Bowie’s death, Candy Clark shares her experience working with him for Variety

The Man Who Fell To Earth erased time and space and ended an era – Detailed analysis from The Dissolve’s Keith Phipps

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ Is a Classic Twice over—as a Movie and a Novel – Malcolm Jones discusses differences between the movie and novel for The Daily Beast

Seeing ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ Was One of the Greatest Experiences of Philip K. Dick’s Life – Article on the eccentric sci-fi author’s love of the film and how he incorporated references to it into his novels

Bowie and the missing soundtrack: the amazing story behind The Man Who Fell to Earth – Information on the loss and recovery of the original soundtrack

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)‘s original List Candidate review for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Man Who Fell to Earth – Walter Tevis’ original novel

DVD INFO: StudioCanal and Lionsgate do a very commendable job with their new “Limited Collector’s Edition” of The Man Who Fell to Earth  (buy). It’s just unfortunate that they couldn’t harvest the few missing pieces from the people at Criterion, whose rights to the film expired several years ago. The box set is lovely, and includes the (seemingly) prerequisite “Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD” trifecta, perfect for piquing the interest of the splintered home-movie market: those who swear by Blu-ray, those who cannot be bothered to upgrade their system, and those who think, for some reason, it’s OK to watch a Panavision 2.35:1 wide-screen movie on a mobile device.

The video and sound delight, and though the extras are dominated by talking heads (not quite three hours’-worth), those heads are charming and have interesting things to say. Barring David Bowie, one hears from all the major players involved, and even the erstwhile alien has a little blurb included from a contemporaneous French interview. Though not terribly informative about the movie, it does show an affable Bowie appearing, as much as he can, like a normal kind of guy. Inside the box is a nicely put-together booklet with essays and stills. Rounding things out are a handful of postcard-sized photos from the movie coupled with a movie poster and another (smaller) booklet comprising the “press kit” given out to cinemas.

As I said earlier, there are a few things found in the Criterion release (now out-of-print) (buy used) that are not on the new release, and vice versa. For the completist with an unlimited budget, I guess I’d recommend both releases; but it’s the movie itself that’s important, and once more it can be yours, new and Blu, at an affordable price.

Naturally,The Man Who Fell to Earth can also be downloaded or rented digitally (buy or rent on-demand).

2 thoughts on “276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)”

  1. Somebody smarter than me can comment on the fact that Bowie’s son got his start directing smart science fiction movies….

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