LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Read the official Certified Weird entry here. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Rip Torn

PLOT: An extraterrestrial visits earth in search of water, but becomes distracted by alcohol, television, corporate politics, and a tempestuous relationship with a human woman.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Roeg’s usual penchants for nonlinear storytelling and rich, occasionally disturbing imagery are stretched to their breaking points here; the resulting film is not always coherent or consistent, but it is fascinating and intermittently very weird.

COMMENTS: Only Nicolas Roeg would have taken a story roughly in the vein of Starman or E.T. and turned it into this.  Instead of falling into a facile, friendly relationship with earth’s inhabitants, Roeg’s spaceman, Thomas Jerome Newton, is afflicted with a severe case of culture shock.  Struggling to simultaneously save his faraway family and understand human behavior, he ends up failing at both, and the film traces out his steep rise-and-fall arc with a plot so disorientingly scrambled that it sometimes threatens to become stream-of-consciousness.

Through this frenzied editing style, we’re witness to Newton’s past, present, and future, although it’s rarely clear which is which at any given moment.  This extreme nonlinearity conveys the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land, as flashbacks bleed readily into the film’s putative reality or its characters’ fantasies; however, this also tends to make plot developments foggy and render motivations obscure.  In this sense, it’s a very messy film, often more interested in delving into Newton’s frazzled interior logic than in aiding the viewer’s comprehension.  Stretched with epic sweep over 138 minutes, the film’s detours and repeated segments (like that of the spaceship crashing) can get frustrating, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is more about visceral sensory experiences and emotional intuition than narrative flow.

Under those terms, the film is a qualified success.  Newton’s skyrocketing financial fortunes, his dalliance with a sweet small-town girl named Mary Lou (Clark), his alcohol-driven decline, and his subsequent institutionalization are all tightly interwoven, delineating a tragic, decades-long trajectory.  The tragedy is further illustrated by the interspersed snippets of memory and fantasy, including a violent musical interlude set to the song “Hello Mary Lou” that recalls the “Memo to Turner” scene from Performance.  Also like Performance (and the rest of Roeg’s early films), The Man Who Fell to Earth abounds with graphic sexuality, which becomes one more avenue for Newton’s experimentation with life on earth.  Both formally and morally, this film is tailor-made to offend conservative sensibilities.

The film’s mounting transgressions are compounded by the way that Bowie’s cadaverous, androgynous body blurs the line between human and alien, especially during the lengthy sex scenes.  His star power and otherworldly aura make the film’s sci-fi conceits believable, since with his shock of unnaturally red hair, his eyes (which are different two colors), and even his British accent—which stands out against the voices of his American costars—Bowie is believably not of this world, and when he chooses to remove his human skin and eyes, the outcome is only marginally stranger than the his original appearance.  As he changes from freshly arrived naïf to contaminated wino, Bowie anchors the film, his intractable presence acting as a counterpoint to Roeg’s flighty direction.

Since Roeg speaks in such an indecipherable visual language, it’s hard to know what to make of The Man Who Fell to Earth.  It’s partly a spaced-out parable about capitalism and chemical dependence, and possibly a satire of the rags-to-riches American success story.  Although it drags on too long and is often unfulfilling, it’s still inexplicably captivating.  When it’s all over and the poor man is stuck here on earth, you’re left with a film that’s as enigmatic, tormented, and unexpectedly beautiful as the pale face of Bowie himself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story is complicated. It is set up as a near-total mystery that unfolds bit by bit, leaving—it must be said—a few small unexplained gaps. The price paid for this method is a certain confusion; the gain is the spectator’s tingling desire to have the puzzle work out.”–Richard Eder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

8 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)”

  1. Enigmatic? If not being entertained by a movie qualifies as an enigma, then it’s enigmatic. It failed to live up to this 1970’s Bowie fanatics pretty low teenage standards back when it came out and I think we had to drive into Minneapolis to see this maybe 40 or 50 miles to see it. I couldn’t even get through it again a few years back when I tried to watch it again (but I have grown into an unbelievable film curmudgeon).

  2. I would basically agree with pretty much everything said in this review. I personally like the way Roeg made movies, though obviously it isn’t for everybody, and although Bowie’s no actor, he’s such an intrinsic oddball that it works in his favour here – compare his performance as an utterly dislocated person with the woefully flat portrayal of Doctor Manhattan in the lamentable “Watchmen” and you’ll see what I mean.

    By the way, if I may correct you on a tiny detail, in this film Bowie’s eyes aren’t different colours. It looks that way because he has one permanently dilated pupil, but that’s not a makeup effect, it’s a physical feature he genuinely has.

    A few points are worth making. Firstly, Bowie’s alien castaway is in the source novel a much less sympathetic character. Instead of merely attempting to ferry a container of water to his dying family on Mars (in the book this is explicitly where he’s from – in the interests of not being too pulpy, the movie doesn’t actually say so, but it’s pretty obvious), he’s the scout for a global takeover by the remnants of the Martian race who fancy living on a slightly less doomed planet; his arrogant but at the time very trendy justification is that obviously the Martians will look after Earth better than humans ever did, just because they aren’t human.

    Also, in the book, the American authorities are (not unreasonably) very suspicious of him from the start. His Earth survival kit includes pills he needs to take while he’s getting used to the new conditions. Since the Martians have only seen Earth’s culture on television, they know what a packet of aspirins looks like, but they don’t know that humans don’t make generic drug packaging out of pure platinum, let alone toss such things casually into the trash! Ultimately they figure out exactly who he is in a way that in the movie they don’t, and there’s a totally explicit “You’re a space-alien, aren’t you?” confrontation scene which Roeg more or less omitted.

    Anyway, the platinum pill-box and other clues alert the FBI to the fact that he’s a very special kind of illegal alien, a plotline which Roeg wisely dumps altogether because it would have made his movie too much of a hard sci-fi film instead of the enigma it is for a great deal of its running time. Also, it isn’t terribly plausible that the authorities would under any circumstances at all just let an extraterrestrial genius who was originally planning to conquer the world walk away and become an alcoholic musician if they genuinely knew that that’s what he was. The book ends in exactly the same way as the film, and with exactly the same line, but much less believably – after what’s come before, the way Bowie conveys that Mr Newton has had enough is genuinely poignant.

    One point where Roeg falls down very badly (in my humble opinion) is the scene quite early on where our hero is overcome with nausea and seems to be on the verge of death due to the acceleration he experiences in an ordinary hotel lift. This is taken directly from the book, and is based on the fact that Mars has much weaker gravity than Earth, so the poor guy can barely stand up as it is, and any additional G-force is too much for him. The fact that this is stressed so heavily in the film – he also orders his chauffeur to drive absurdly slowly just to reinforce the point – makes it absolutely ludicrous that, in Roeg’s changed ending, he builds his own private space-rocket.

    Come on! It has been so firmly established that this guy is hyper-sensitive to G-forces that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that if he’d actually blasted off in that spaceship (as opposed to the one he arrived in, which we never see and which no doubt worked in a much more sophisticated fashion), he’d have been jam before he left the launch-pad! An unfortunate detail which distracts any viewer who spots it at a crucial point when we’re supposed to be identifying on a purely emotional level with the character, and which comes at the exact moment when we’re about to suddenly plunge into a typically pop-art Roeg WTF climax, so it helps if we’re remembering to care about him instead of being distracted and then going “WTF???”

    No, Nick Roeg is not perfect, and neither is this film; but it’s a very interestingly imperfect movie, and one which I’d say is a lot more genuinely weird for all the right reasons than some you’ve chosen already. Today it would be made as a straight adaptation with no real ambiguity at all, and turned into a dated lump of preachy pulp probably starring Kevin Spacey. All things considered, there are worse things than being an auteur.

    Incidentally, I think this may be the first movie in which a major character was blatantly gay but it had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Roeg included that little detail so casually that it took me years to notice how unconventional of him it was to do so – I just wish he’d been equally subtle regarding that business with the rocket.

    PS – The “Hello Mary Lou” scene really freaked me out the first time I saw it because my childhood bedroom had that exact same rather unusual wallpaper. It’s just as well I didn’t see it as a child – I would undoubtedly have had nightmares about Bowie emerging from the hitherto unnoticed concealed door in my bedroom and doing – well, all that madly grinning stuff with the gun… Which would probably have been the ideal response Nick Roeg would have liked to get from adults.

    1. I pretty much doubt that the rocket that Bowie builds necessarily works like our regular ones do. He could easily have anti-G gear in there. Plus, it was a wise choice for Roeg to remove the silly Mars backstory.

  3. Excellent review, as usual! I saw this film for the first time a few months ago and was actually a little let down that it wasn’t weirder. So much of the first half or so is this overlong, slightly eccentric drama and I was just waiting for the wacky alien stuff to get going. I did generally enjoy it though, mainly because David Bowie is so amazing and there’s a lot of quick-edit nudity.

  4. Read the book that inspired the movie. The book has no sex! None! It’s funny how the movie does. I wonder if David Bowie knew that…honestly, in the book his character makes it clear he’s not interested. :p The movie is completely different, but I loved it anyway. :)

  5. For me, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is to “Don’t look now” what “Stalker” is to “Solaris”: The earlier work may be more accessible to the masses, but I like the later work much, much more for being weirder and still holding together as a mood piece and being crafted by a truly visual artist, and because there’s still enough of a plot to pull me through.

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