Part eccentric art house film. Part science fiction epic. One hundred percent David Bowie.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is an epic film about an alien stuck on Earth. But it’s also about the process of being human, learning to love, and survive in the modern world.
Seeing this trailer the first thing that comes to mind is that this is a vehicle for singer David Bowie to become an actor. Besides the narrator touting his prowess in the film, he interacts with several characters. Some want to know if he’s the first visitor to Earth, another wants to know if his ship is a weapon, and a woman wants him to stay with her. It’s like E.T. The Extraterrestrial, except with an androgynous pop singer. But then the twist comes, when another man claims that Bowie is a fake! Is he really an alien? Or just some deluded human? Fasten your safety belts as it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Man Who Fell To Earth opens with shots of rocket launches, and debris streaking through the atmosphere. Something crashes into a lake in the Southwestern United States. A man, later identified as Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) walks over a hill and into the local town. He is observed by a man in a suit. He enters a jewelry store and sells a gold ring for $20. He is later seen with a wad of $100 bills and dozens of gold rings. Newton seeks out Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) , a notable patent lawyer in New York City presenting him with 9 patents to review. Farnsworth believes that these could easily fetch Newton $300 million a year.
Newton creates a new corporation called World Enterprises (or We for short) that is all based on alien technology. It manufactures things such as books, cameras, televisions, vehicles and fuel. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) gets his first look at one of these cameras in the hands of a young co-ed who is his student, and his lover. He cycles through three or four young women, but cannot find happiness in his current job as a college Professor. After some time Newton moves back to New Mexico to build a house from which to direct his corporation. He stays in a hotel while he gets settled and meets Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a maid. She has an immediate attraction to Newton, helping him after a fainting spell.
Later Newton hires Bryce to head his fuel project and moves him out to New Mexico as well. Bryce gets a house on the opposite side of the lake from Newton’s home. The same lake that Newton crashed in years before. Mary-Lou introduces Newton to alcohol, television, and sex. His relationship with Mary-Lou is one of great passion, and sometimes strong emotions. At times he will watch multiple televisions at once upsetting Mary-Lou. At this time she still believes he is just a man from England, as he claims.
Newton meets with Bryce to answer questions he might have about the project. He shows the scientist an orb, which is a command module of sorts. Bryce is worried it might be a weapon, and begins to have concerns about Newton’s ultimate goal, and if he’s really human. Bryce sets up an x-ray camera to secretly record Newton one evening–which reveals the aliens strange physiology. Newton chastises Bryce, as he can see the flash of the x-ray, but decides to explain his predicament. His home world is suffering a terrible drought and he has come to Earth due to its abundance of water.
Newton tells Mary-Lou that he must leave. She is now noticeably older, and wears a wig. She screams at him that he’s an alien–meaning that he is a foreigner with an expired Visa, but he decides to reveal the truth. He changes in the bathroom, removing his scleral lenses and becoming a hairless, serpent eyed, asexual humanoid. Mary-Lou freaks out at this, but then tries to reconcile her previous relationship with Newton by slipping into bed with this…thing. She can’t do it and runs away.
At some further time in the future, all the humans are older, but Newton hasn’t aged a day. He is captured as he is about to take flight back home and put in a secret facility where doctors poke and prod him, keeping him complacent by giving him alcohol and television. Some men murder Farnsworth and his husband. Bryce and Mary-Lou have found each other and become lovers. She visits Newton at his request and they share a brief sexual fling, but both admit they don’t love each other anymore. At this point Newton realizes his jailers are no longer attending to him. Years later Bryce tracks Newton down. The alien still hasn’t changed, but no longer is eager to leave the planet, having become a depressed drunk that just goes about his existence.
“I’m not a scientist. But l know all things begin and end in eternity.” – Thomas Jerome Newton
History in the Making
The Man Who Fell To Earth is director Nicholas Roeg’s follow up to his well received horror/thriller Don’t Look Now, and his only sci-fi film. It served as a vehicle for singer/songwriter David Bowie to try out acting. But anyone paying attention to Bowie in the early 70’s knew that he was already an actor, taking on “roles” in his music and on stage as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, or The Thin White Duke. The film also connects to Bowie’s fascination with science-fiction in his work, with such songs as “Space Oddity” his debut single, “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” & “Ziggy Stardust” all from his classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album, and the haunting “Life on Mars.”
Roeg and Bowie’s film also connects to previous films about visitors from outer space blending in on Earth, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, Not of this Earth, and in a sense even Mars Needs Women. In these films, the aliens all need something from the humans (we’re that important), either for good or for ill. However, The Man Who Fell To Earth, is more than a visitation film where the aliens provide the secret to global peace, or steal earthlings blood or women. It’s a science-fiction film that explores the good and the bad about life; the intentions that make life and oftentimes destroy it as well.
The Man Who Fell To Earth, much like A Boy and His Dog, has achieved cult status amongst fans, but for different reasons. A Boy and His Dog is a darker, more cynical film, where this week’s film is tragic and laden with meaning ready for interpretation. It’s not a simple plot driven film, but tracks over decades to show the arc of one man’s (aliens?) effect on his life and the lives of others. The full timeline is obfuscated giving the film a more surreal quality, where scenes appear to be non-sequiturs of previous shots, and the film falls into a rhythm of the characters’ lives.
It’s also a film that has been a strong influence to other sci-fi works, both in print and in film. Renowned author Philip K. Dick, responsible for some of the late 20th Centuries best adapted works (Blade Runner, Total Recall, & Minority Report) fictionalized The Man Who Fell to Earth in his 1981 work “VALIS.” In that book, Dick fictionalizes both himself and fellow author K.W. Jeter, who are fans of rock star Eric Lampton’s sci-fi film Valis, which are stand-ins for Bowie and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
The film also informs future motion pictures such as John Carpenter’s Starman, which is about an individual being (Jeff Bridges) who masquerades as a human, learning about life before departing. Thematically and tonally, The Man Who Fell To Earth feels a lot like the recent Under The Skin, which is a strange horror/sci-fi mashup starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien that consumes humans to learn more about them. That’s not even a fair assessment as that film, like this one, has a lot more going on. Visually the film also influenced the look of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, with the character of Adrian Viedt watching a bank of televisions at the same time, and the design of a room in Dr. Manhattan’s apartment–decorated with tree wallpaper, fake grass for carpet, and even leaves strewn about.
It also served as that rockstars/pop singers could add something to a film other than just the soundtrack. Bowie was obviously an exceptional talent, whose naivete in the form of film acting adds to some of the charm and otherworldliness of this character. The same cannot be said for other singers, but that doesn’t stop them from being cast in sci-fi roles. To date, none have ever matched the achievement that Bowie had in this film as the main character, most serving as either bit parts or the villains of their respective film. Genre fans may remember such performances as Mick Jagger in Freejack, Sting in David Lynch’s Dune, Kris Kristofferson in the Blade franchise and the time-travelling turkey Millennium, Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Debby Harry in the equally surreal Videodrome, Meatloaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Gene Simmons in Michael Crichton’s Runaway, and even Tom Waits in The Book of Eli.
While The Man Who Fell To Earth purports to be a science-fiction film it is more of a long form essay on the nature of humanity. As an outsider, Thomas Newton is a blank slate with which to form relationships with the characters around him. Since the film covers a large portion of the characters lives, it allows for the slow arc of changes that come from time to be shown in a more compact timeframe.
It starts with his sexual relationship with Mary-Lou. This was probably not a relationship that Newton was looking for, having left a wife and kids at “home.” But her helpful personality is there for him during a time when he is struggling. In their first meeting, she literally carries him to safety. As a character she is complex, introducing him to the pleasures of love, alcohol, and religion. But over time, as she ages and he does not, the newness wears off and Newton’s debilitating alcohol use and media consumption (watching dozens of televisions at once) become too much for her. But when he tries to leave her, she still wants to cling to him and make him stay. Just as quickly her anger rises and she starts another fight.
More tragic than Mary-Lou’s relationship with Newton, which arguably gave her much benefit of love, money, and companionship, was Newton himself. He was a man with a plan. He would come to Earth, and set up a corporation in which to build the necessary devices that would allow him to transport water back to his home planet. Unfortunately he became caught up in the day-today events of his life. The friendships, the relationships, the boredom. While Mary-Lou was a good companion to him, she also introduced him to alcohol, which did even stranger things to his physiology than it does to humans. He was burdened with others prying into his private life, and eventually being taken down by what appears to be a government agency and a rival company. By the end of the film, Newton is a sad drunk who realizes there’s no hope of returning home. He has recorded an album that he hopes his wife will hear as the radio waves transmitting it finally reach his planet.
As with many other sci-fi films, The Man Who Fell To Earth holds a mirror to humanity which presents a new way to look at our problems. Life is about love, but also pain. For many there is boredom, repetition, and apathy with the daily grind, to which the monotony can be broken by substance abuse, or unhealthy relationships. It shows that the best of intentions can be sidetracked by time and the tediousness of everyday life.
The Science in The Fiction
One could get caught up scientifically with the inconsistencies of the film. Such as, if the planet Newton comes from is so advanced, and has the technology to make so many things, then why are they unable to produce water–something relatively simple scientifically speaking to create? The flashbacks in the film to Newton’s family don’t show anything like what someone may picture as an advanced society. The ship that he uses to depart his planet looks like a small clay house on a monorail, and his spacesuit is more of a see-through unitard. But ultimately the science is immaterial to the plot of the film, which is about emotions and not technology.
The Final Frontier
Bowie was initially under the impression that he was providing the soundtrack to this film as well as starring in it. That duty actually went to John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas), but Bowie’s experiences netted him material for two of his albums at this time: “Station to Station” which was released a few months before the film and features a photo of Newton entering his spaceship capsule, and 1977s “Low.” Those familiar with the Bowie of this era, know that he was in a dark place, using cocaine to excess and cutting himself off from others. The character he created at this time of the Thin White Duke was neo-Nazi of sorts, immortalized in the titular track of “Station to Station.” His detachment served his acting in this film, giving Thomas Newton an even more alien like presence.
He would continue as an actor, improving in his future work with such iconic roles as Jareth, the Goblin King in Labyrinth, Pontius Pilate in Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and a great rendition of Nikola Tesla from The Prestige. Candy Clark was known at the time from George Lucas’s single, non-sci-fi film American Graffiti. Rip Torn became known for a mix of comedic and dramatic roles, but may best be known to genre fans from The Beastmaster or as Agent Zed, the leader of the Men In Black. Finally, Buck Henry was previously discussed in The Day of the Dolphin article as the writer of that film.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those films that is a necessary element of a well rounded sci-fi education. It presents a sci-fi film in facade only, but one that seeks to investigate and deconstruct the human condition.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.