Looking back at Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth

As Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth arrives on Blu-ray, we salute one of the most unique science fiction films of the 1970s…

In most sci-fi movies, aliens are either invaders or envoys with benevolent messages, marauding aggressors who want to plunder our earthly resources, or messianic figures with dire warnings of doom to impart.

Director Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, is very different, relating a humanoid alien’s lonely experiences as an outsider in a vast, unfamiliar America. Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel, it’s a film about alienation rather than the benefits (or disaster) an alien visitation might bring.

David Bowie’s perfectly cast as Thomas Jerome Newton, exploiting his unique, androgynous otherness as a skinny alien with a crisp British accent. Porcelain pale, extraordinarily intelligent and apparently chaste (he prefers to drink water, and initially shows no interest in sex), we share Newton’s bewilderment at the otherness of the world around him, his attorney’s distracting, thick-lensed glasses, the bullying hyperactivity of television, the tortured lowing of cattle.

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Early on, Newton employs his superior intellect to create an advanced form of self-developing photographic film and uses the funds from that invention to build up a globe-spanning corporation. His ulterior motive is to create a craft that can take him back home to his wife and children, who live in some unspecified corner of the cosmos. But while his ingenuity brings him untold power and riches, these trappings only serve to increase the gulf between himself and the planet on which he’s trapped.

Introduced to the wonders of alcohol by sweet hotel maid, Mary-Lou (wonderfully played by Candy Clark), Newton is gradually corrupted by Earth’s sensual delights. He becomes enthralled by television, his initially platonic relationship with Mary-Lou becomes physical, and as he becomes mired in his vices, Newton’s intellectual vigour begins to desert him. In this sense, he really does fall, Icarus-like, to Earth. Surrounded by temptations, he’s dragged down to the level of the mortal sinners around him.

And when his corporation’s violently taken over by government operatives, he barely notices that he’s become a prisoner to his own decadence, and spends all his time eating, drinking industrial quantities of gin, and lazing around like an emperor in the last days of Rome.

I quite the way Roeg leaves so much unsaid, an increasingly rare technique in movie making these days. It’s never explained why Thomas Jerome Newton speaks perfect English (though it’s hinted that he could have simply learned it from watching television), and there’s even the possibility that his off-world origins are entirely delusional.

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Did the X-ray near the film’s conclusion really sear the contact lenses (which disguise his real frog-like irises from view) onto his eyes, or was this a fabrication? Did Mary-Lou really see him in his true, alien form, or was this some kind of sozzled hallucination?

Like Roeg’s other films of the 60s and 70s, The Man Who Fell To Earth plays around with the audience’s perception of time. Apparently immortal, Newton remains unchanged as those around him age. Decades pass in a single cut, and Roeg refuses to pinpoint exactly how much time has elapsed between the episodes in Newton’s existence, allowing viewers to guess at these jumps for themselves.

The time period the film covers could actually be quite epic. Mary-Lou is still a youthful hotel maid when Newton first meets her, and by the conclusion, she appears to be well into her autumn years.

On an aesthetic level, Roeg’s film has suffered mixed fortunes. Its score is frequently shrill and jarring, at least to this reviewer’s ears, and the occasional glimpses we’re afforded of Newton’s life on his arid home planet look woefully amateurish when viewed from today’s CG-fuelled, slick perspective. But, then again, is this the point, perhaps? By giving us these fleeting glances of Newton’s doll-like family and their rickety dwelling, is Roeg alerting us to the unreliability of these memories?

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A film from an era when directors were still probing at the boundaries of what could be achieved in cinema, from both a technical and moral standpoint, The Man Who Fell To Earth is both exquisitely shot and stylistically decadent. Like Newton himself, Roeg indulges in lengthy, portentous scenes where characters simply stare into the middle distance. The film’s also notable for both its surprising amount of sex, nudity (the most seen in a genre film since the 1974’s camp erotic sci-fi, Flesh Gordon, perhaps), and repeated scenes of lugubrious gin consumption.

That said, the sex and boozing all serve a necessary function in Newton’s sorry story. As the film begins, he’s an untainted figure, sharply contrasted by Rip Torn’s licentious high school teacher, whose sole hobby appears to be the deflowering of his students. But when Newton fails to find a way of getting water back to his own planet, he descends into the hollow existence his wealth can provide.

In some ways a dated and meandering film, The Man Who Fell To Earth is worthy of enduring attention, thanks to its committed, moving central performances. Bowie is remarkable as a red-haired fallen angel, Candy Clarke both innocent and disquieting as the sweet, wide-eyed girl who appears to decay in front of the lens, and Rip Torn convincingly stoical as the libidinous teacher whose interest in science is reignited by Newton’s research.

While not a film that everyone will appreciate, The Man Who Fell To Earth is an experimental, one-of-a-kind piece of filmmaking, which stands alongside Walkabout and Don’t Look Now as Nicolas Roeg’s finest work, and Bowie’s never been better as one of the most compelling aliens in cinema.

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