The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Director: Nicolas Roeg): It really doesn’t surprise me a bit that this film baffled the critics upon its release. Perhaps the presence of David Bowie in his first film role led them to believe it would be a musical. Or perhaps they expected a straight-up sci-fi film like some others from that era (Logan’s Run, Rollerball). What they got instead is something like a sci-fi western satire, which of course makes no sense at all. It didn’t help that in the US, twenty minutes of crucial footage was excised.
Roeg wasn’t at all worried about working with a non-actor like Bowie, having worked with Mick Jagger in Performance a few years earlier. He knew that rock stars like Jagger and Bowie were performers, able to inhabit a persona just as skilfully as any actor. And Bowie’s performance is fine; he’s able to harness his physical charisma perfectly playing a cipher onto which the other characters project their own needs.
The film still baffles today, even as it dazzles with some great visuals. The closest I can come to unlocking some its meaning is to say that it’s the story of an alien becoming human. Bowie plays “Thomas Jerome Newton,” a visitor from a planet which is dying from drought. His mission is to find water and return with it to his planet. But he quickly becomes corrupted by his contacts with people and ends up secluded in a huge apartment like Howard Hughes. At the beginning of the film, his alien intelligence allows him to register some unique patents and form a company that becomes incredibly successful. But his wealth leads those closest to him to betrayal, and the government, suspicious of his company’s success, destroys his business, confines him and carries out medical experiments to see what makes him different. There is a mishmash of ideas at work in the film, but at root it’s the story of an innocent corrupted by exposure to the venality of human society.
His relationships are formed with other outsiders, who are drawn to his vulnerability as well as to his intelligence, wealth or influence. Mary Lou (Candy Clark) falls in love with him, and uses him to escape her life as a hotel maid with a booze problem. When he reveals his true self to her in a memorable scene, she is unable to bear it. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a college professor with a weakness for co-eds, devotes his life to scientific research for Newton. He’s the only one who really guesses Newton’s secret, and he vows to help him develop the technology needed to get him back home. And Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), the man to whom Newton entrusts his company, is a gay man in the 1970s, when discrimination would have been much worse than it is now. But each of these trusted confidantes betrays him in one way or another, because of lust, greed, or a desire for power.
At the end, he doesn’t even seem to mind so much. “We’d have probably treated you the same if you’d come over to our place,” he tells Bryce when asked if he’s bitter. The angelic being introduced at the beginning of the film has become as jaded and cynical as the rest of us. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a strange, sad and haunting thing.
Note: The stills are from the standard-def DVD. The Blu-Ray from Criterion looks very nice indeed, and if you have the option, I’d recommend the Blu-Ray unreservedly.
A few other tidbits about the film:
- The last still above, of Brueghel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is an important touchstone, as is W.H. Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts which comments on it. Both pieces emphasize that Icarus’ fall was pretty much ignored by the rest of the world. Newton’s plight is similarly smothered by the world; first by its curiosity, then by its suspicion and finally by its indifference.
- Bowie did record some music for the film but it wasn’t used. It ended up as Side 2 of his album Low (1977)
- Bowie also used the interior of the space travel set (in the fourth still above) for the cover of his album Station to Station (1976)