The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth
Editor’s Note: I’m gradu­ally fig­ur­ing out that my Snapshots cat­egory is for films which baffle me a little but whose visual or other ele­ments won’t leave me alone. I’d char­ac­ter­ize myself as someone who’s much more com­fort­able talk­ing about plot and char­ac­ter than about, well, any­thing else to do with film. So please indulge me.

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.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth

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.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth

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.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth

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.

The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Fell to Earth

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)

Essay by Graham Fuller on the Criterion web­site

8/10(8/10)

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