The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Written by Paul Mayersburg
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
The year before Star Wars was an important one for science fiction. Once George Lucas released his blockbuster science fantasy film, anything set in space or alien worlds would be changed forever. Three major science fiction films were released in 1976: Logan’s Run, Futureworld (the sequel to Westworld), and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Each movie represents a kind of science fiction story that didn’t see much traction in the 1980s, though DNA from the Westworld franchise can be seen in films like The Running Man and Jurassic Park. The Man Who Fell to Earth was made by a very esoteric filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg. For my Horror Masterworks in October 2020, I rewatched and reviewed his Don’t Look Now. This would be his fourth theatrical feature and become a cult classic like the rest of his work.
Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is a humanoid alien that has come to Earth from a distant world plagued by drought. He uses prosthetics and make-up to appear as an Englishman and uses advanced technology to create new inventions and become wealthy. After securing a business and help from patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), Newton settles down in New Mexico. He meets hotel maid Mary Lou (Candy Clark), who is smitten with the man. She introduces him to sex, alcohol, church, and television, all of which begin to have a strange effect on him. Newton begins constructing a space travel facility on the property he owns and recruits Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a chemistry professor, to help him develop a renewable fuel source. Before Thomas can use the spaceship, he has built to return and gather his people, the CIA working with an industry rival has Newton kidnapped for experimentation.
The Man Who Fell to Earth has the very distinct editing style that Roeg became famous for. He often uses nonlinear techniques to see or hear events that are happening in the past or the future. Narratively this is supported by Newton’s involuntary ability to see lightwaves the human eye cannot and glimpses through time when he is in particular places. There’s a scene where Newton rides in the back of his limo and suddenly sees a pioneer family who can also see his car and cannot comprehend what is moving past them. Roeg truly captures the essence of cinema with these techniques, delivering stories that only work in this particular medium. I always appreciate when a filmmaker understands the nuances of the medium and can create art that singularly exists in that framework.
At its core, this is a fish out of water film that focuses on how an alien being is broken down & corrupted by Americans. In some ways, it’s the reverse of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where Klaatu does see the violent side of humanity but also learns to love some of the people and see the positives. Newton is a victim of the system he falls into, corrupted physically and spiritually. His planet is dying of thirst, and Newton sits bloated on the alcohol he guzzles down, pushed on by Mary Lou. The people and organizations Newton encounters intend to stop him from improving Earth or even seeing himself as outside of them. He has to forcibly assimilate and give up on his old life.
The film works so well because of how Roeg plays fast and loose with time and structure. The audience feels as disoriented as Newton, being pinballed around. Because of his temporal abilities, we see moments from his past juxtaposed with the present. For example, he is being seduced by Mary Lou, and suddenly we’re on his homeworld watching as he says goodbye to his family to head off for a planet with water. There’s also the concept of possible futures introduced as we see different timelines play out where he returns to his family and they happily greet him or another where his family lies dying in the desert of his world.
I think The Man Who Fell to Earth is as much about aliens as it is about the experience of outsiders like David Bowie. He is thinking on a different wavelength, communicating new ideas that the masses might not understand yet. Because of this difference, he must be punished and broken down until he’s been so thoroughly declawed he is no longer a threat. By the end of the film, his captors don’t even need to try to lock him up; he has nothing left to fight with. It’s also apt that he records an album filled with songs that serve as messages to his homeworld. Earlier in the film, we learned that they discovered Earth culture through broadcasts that eventually made their way to the world. So too, does Newton hope his songs will make their way across the cosmos when played on the radio. His final act is to drunkenly collapse at a table during a midday drinking binge, a husk of who he once was, lamenting how he failed to save his family.