The Man Who Fell to Earth: The Myopic Wonder of David Bowie’s Earth Oddity

The Man Who Fell to Earth gains its vision by losing sight of the stars.

The Man Who Fell to Earth isn’t like any other science fiction movie, even though it inspired and continues to pour new life into the genre. It is subtle, ethereal and a wholly human story. Indeed, David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton is the most human character in the film. If not more human, certainly one with more humanity. He is an ideal that the people who betray him, and that’s almost everyone in the film, could only aspire to. Bowie’s alien is an outsider, a visitor suffering from hyperopia who becomes more myopic as he is corrupted by the temptations of his new home. At first he is focused on the plight of his home planet, but that gets hazy through the tunnel vision of the problems of a suspicious and greedy world.

As jarring as the Starman at the center of the film, it was more of a space oddity when it was released. The Man Who Fell to Earth came out the same year as Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. These movies challenged social and political authority and tradition as much as they spliced a new reel of film onto celluloid history. These were concerned filmmakers, desperate to get crucial information into the public consciousness through art. The Man Who Fell to Earth subtly takes on conservation, capitalism, and alienation, not just of the interplanetary variety.

This is an environmentally conscious film with an avaricious heart. The word for Earth on Newton’s terra firma is the planet of water and it is squandered in its plenty. You get thirsty watching the movie and you don’t know why. In the beginning of the film, Tommy savors his first sips of water from a stream. By the end he’s replaced it with gin and, even worse, ice cubes.

Star Wars, the space opera set in a galaxy far away, wouldn’t land for another year. In spite of the plight of Newton’s home planet, The Man Who fell to Earth does not paint a dystopian future, like Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Silent Running, or A Clockwork Orange and other sci-fi classics that came before it, but a divided present. Newton wasn’t a threatening invader from Mars. He is closer to Jeff Bridges’ alien in Starman, looking for the good in mankind and missing it by that much. Bridges’ baseball-capped alien takes home the idea that humans are at their best when things are at their worst. Tommy learns that when people are at their worst, you can never go home again.

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Cynical Writers and Director’s Illusions

The screenplay for The Man Who Fell to Earth was written by Paul Mayersberg, based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel, which the interviews in the special features of the Blu-ray point out is a very different experience. The film was produced by Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, who reacted to the Vietnam POW experience two years later when made The Deer Hunter, one of the greatest assembly of young hungry future acting legends ever brought to the screen. Deeley and Spikings were not afraid to put their money into harsh cinema or risk blowback.

The Man Who Fell to Earth was directed by the late Nicolas Roeg, who was no stranger to rock stars in their first acting role. He worked with Mick Jagger on the 1970 sex, drugs, and gangsters movie Performance, which he directed with Donald Cammell, who wrote it. Some people still say Jagger’s sex scenes with Anita Pallenberg were the real deal and legend has it that Keith Richards stalked the sets in his limo while they were doing it. Not content with a Spider from Mars or a Rolling Stone, Roeg went on to make Track 29 for former Beatle George Harrison’s HandMade Films in 1988. The last film Roeg directed before The Man Who Fell to Earth was the classic 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now, which starred Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Roeg elicits very naturalistic acting. Some scenes play out like a documentary, others aquatic aerial ballet.

Bowie’s Thomas Newton is the bipolar opposite of the alien in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Newton’s vision of earthlings gets smaller while Klaatu’s (Michael Rennie) perception opens up as he strolls the streets of Washington looking for an excuse not to say Farewell to the Master life forms on the planet. The scientists who probe the wealthy spaceman don’t only shut down Newton’s vision. They solder his contact lenses to his eyes so that he can never prove his life beyond the clouds.

further reading: Exploring David Bowie’s Sci-Fi Fascination

The more Newton sees of the world the less he sees. His perception is limited long before the X-rays do their damage. It’s not that he’s jaded. He bravely walks past his first impressions. The very first image he has of Earth is a drunk and a bouncy fun house grotesquely struggling in the wind. His discernment is only partially impeded because his girlfriend Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) gives him his first drink of alcohol and he gets more than a taste for it. As Bowie’s vision blurs, the people around him become clearer and his family, far away, gets out of focus.

The first person to get a good look at the otherworldly traveler has extreme astigmatism. That doesn’t stop him from fully examining his visitor and the massive technology that will make him a fortune in patent filings. He sees the precocious pilgrim as a gift horse and contemplates his father’s advice to look deep into its mouth. But the attorney’s old man was no sage and he is adrift in uncharted territory.

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Alcoholic Actors and Spaced-Out Spaceman

Buck Henry is funny. He wrote classic comedy like Get Smart and the stuff he got away with on Saturday Night Live is still unbelievable. Oliver V. Farnsworth is a tragic character, stuck behind those eight inches or so of frame. Those aren’t regular bifocals. His eyewear looks like its part magnifying glass and part telescope. As funny as he is, when Farnsworth pleads “don’t take my eyes,” I gasp. Every time. Anyone who wears glasses every day knows they are more than a thing you put on your face to see. They are a part of your face. Sometimes you can’t when you’re not wearing them either. When Farnsworth says that he merges the vision of the film with something tangible in the viewers and hits back at the shortsightedness of the people who take him out of the picture in one fell swoop.

But Farnsworth doesn’t go away so easily and when he fails to break through a penthouse window on the first toss, he apologizes. This is sublime. It is everything you ever want in a Buck Henry performance in a microsecond of celluloid. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s pathetic. It so completely encapsulates everything we expect because it’s a part of all of us. Even on the brink of death, Farnsworth never loses his curiosity. He wants the intruders to take off their masks and show their faces. “At least let me see your face,” he shrieks. He wants to get to the bottom of the mystery. He can’t die with a known unknown on his intellect’s conscience. The people around Newton never lose their quest for more information.

No one needs more data than a disillusioned scientist. College professor Dr. Nathan Bryce is having a ball, several balls, when we first meet him and Rip Torn so clearly enjoys this part throughout. He’s not playing a lecherous old man. He’s playing to lecherous little college girls. You really can’t say enough about Rip Torn, he is one of the most fearless actors in Hollywood history. He wasn’t afraid to get labeled Judas in King of Kings. He turned TV on its ass with Garry Shandling on The Larry Sanders Show and his every role discovers untaught acting methods. Bryce is a perfect part for Torn. As an actor he is constantly exploring, learning and, whether he’d ever admit it, breaking ground on how acting is done.

further reading: David Bowie Was No Chameleon

Bryce is having such a blast with discovery, he gives up fucking 18 year olds because his brain has grown a pair and has a libido of its own. Even the bug crawling on the papers on his desk arouses his grey matter. But he learns that not every problem needs a solution. When Newton uncovers his space capsule secret, Bryce worries that the Newton hasn’t worked out the recovery program, hinting that he knows this is a one-way trip. Although he is relieved that he’s not working on a weapon, Bryce isn’t fooled for a moment. He knows Newton is Lithuanian and an explorer.

Life is exploration in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Even Tommy’s sexual approach is exploration. He discovers Mary-Lou during sex. His fingers go where no man has gone before when they caress her face. This is no mere carnal hunger, this is a thirst for spiritual juice as much as any liquid.

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Candy Clark’s Mary-Lou is so fluid in her almost liquid diet. She’s there and she’s not there. Newton doesn’t appear to be the best candidate for space travel. He crash lands his vehicle. His chauffer can’t go over 20 miles per hour. Newton gets motion sickness after two flights on a hand-operated elevator. Mary-Lou pulls Newton out through the doors of the hand-worked elevator and drags him to where she can fold him up. Bowie goes completely cardboard for this. He probably used that Hermetic Golden Dawn shit to make himself lighter.

Loving the Alien

Mary-Lou sees Tommy as a freak but she doesn’t mean that unkindly. She likes freaks and that’s why she gives Newton his first drink, takes him to his first sermon and is his first earthly mount. She is also the first to learn that he is the extraterrestrial with nothing extra. Mary-Lou promised she’d love Tommy for who he is, whoever he is, and she gives it a good try. Every stage of that decision crosses Clark’s face before she tries to love the alien. Not only her face, Mary-Lou’s entire body resonds. She is so scared of what Tommy is that she wets herself and disassociates.

Mary-Lou forces herself to caress the nude spaceman until he leaks and when he does, it’s a flood. His biology appears strange. His anatomy responds differently. Newton’s organs get played externally and respond to touch in unexpected ways. The way his nipples moisten in arousal, spilling onto his chest, is similar to how the human tongue is always moist. Newton is quite a squirter for a guy. His whole body leaks during sex. It appears that alien sex is a fully immersive experience.

The tweezer-in-the-eye scene is done so well, in all its Andalusian Dog glory, that I have a vivid memory of a couple more frames showing Bowie remove the contacts that is not in this restored version. I looked it up and can find no reference. But the 13-year-old boy who first saw its original release, cringed, and was actually relieved by the scene where he puts it back in as a relief from the tension, remembers it in my mind’s eye. Unless this is a Mandela-effect-moment, that is a very powerful memory to imprint.

Newton doesn’t keep everything under his reptilian lids. He admits from the very beginning that he’s an overstay. Overlapping frames and disjointed scenes make it appear there is more than to him than meets the eye. Is Newton telepathic? Does he hear the voiceovers? The editing makes it seem as he can hear it all, like the angels in Wings of Desire. But he doesn’t get it all. “Get out of my mind,” he yells at the TV screens. His moods darken and lighten at the movements of characters far from view. Yet, he can’t see the dangers in front of him. Tommy learned everything he knows about Earth from television, which doesn’t tell you everything, it only shows you images.

I’ve always seen the scene where Newton sees the early settlers, who also see him, as a representation of some kind of time portal: A break in the continuum where the present and the past leak. Director Roeg frames the scene in the shape of telescopic lens.

The spaceman isn’t always kind. Look at the malevolent grin he gives Mary-Lou when she tells him not to turn on the TVs. She is begging for him to tell her and the look Newton throws at her comes off as malevolent, but it isn’t cruelty. It is a kindness. Newton knows that Mary-Lou wouldn’t be able to handle the truth and the look says “if you only knew.” But some things aren’t that different out there in the southwestern sky. The children on Newton’s home planet are exactly like children. It is a universal. A puppy is a puppy except when it’s a kitten, but they all have to learn to play with their food before they hunt it.

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Newton and Mary-Lou live together until they don’t in the house Newton contracts near where he landed in New Mexico. The alien came so far and is preparing to get back to where he once belonged.

Took a Trip On a Gemini Spacecraft

The man who fell to earth is not only an alien because he fell to earth. He isolates himself. He is a personification of alienation. He had what we assume was a normal life at home and left it all behind to save his planet. Newton must have been a pretty important someone back on his home terrain to have been chosen to take such on such a mission. “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows,” Major Tom sang in Bowie’s breakthrough hit. The loneliness is palpable in the film. Newton is light years from his home and even further distanced from the people around him. Newton isn’t secretive, just private, especially his privates. He prefers to live in the semi-isolation of New Mexico over the dense masses of New York City.

“There have always been visitors,” Newton tells Bryce. Earth is no different than any other planet. Newton has seen their footprints and slept on the same benches outside the same not-quite-pawn shops, hawking his beads to the natives.

Newton says his interest is energy, the transference of energy, and he’s got a stack of pure patents that can help him get it moving. World Industries becomes a power player in the financials. World Enterprises even has its own corporate community where employees travel to meeting by speed boat. How cool is that? That’s rock star living on a scientist’s wage. The isolation may take a little getting used to for Farnsworth, but Newton’s most trusted executive is also the most energetic about getting the spaceman home.

It is the military contractors who stop the launch. Bryce, who was opposed to working on a weapons project if that’s what Newton was involved with, winds up working for the man and taking the woman. Betrayals layer every relationship.

Oliver V. Farnsworth doesn’t plead for his life. He quietly negotiates. “People will know,” he warns the executive enforcers. “They’ll talk.” But no one knows and no one tells. After they toss Farnsworth, which sounds like some kind of cliché name the Bowery Boys would call a rich former butler, to the curb they go after his lover Trevor (Rick Riccardo). Nothing is ever said about their relationship. It is all done through the eyes and they probably should have gotten their own sex scene. I don’t quite understand why the thugs would also toss out the bar bells. It might be that they’re going to pick them up off the street later and take them home, but I’m sure Roeg had some deeper meaning in mind. Maybe to prove the point that exercise is worthless in the long run, or fall.

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Arthur (Tony Mascia) goes with the highest bidder and he is probably Newton’s most expensive commodity. The man was more than a chauffeur and a personal assistant. He knows more about the alien than anyone else. He has as much access as a fly on the wall and is the ultimate abductor. To see him working for the competition Mr. Peters (Bernie Casey) is a shock.

Watch The Man Who Fell to Earth on Amazon

The audience accepts that Tommy is an alien from the moment he reveals himself to Mary-Lou. As the world audience rejects the extraterrestrial explanation for the eccentric World Enterprise founder’s origin, so would the audience, but for the smirk the scientists give after a simple X-ray.

The film has great humor, but is so damned sad. The movie is about loneliness and thirst and Newton solves neither. Yet, the alien completely understands. He forgives his imprisoners by admitting that humans would probably have been treated no better on his own planet.

Time passes without remark. Roeg lets the characters’ age lines fill in the chronology. Except Bowie looks too much like himself in his golden years. The Visitor, which Newton didn’t make for Dr. Bryce, is up against a Bowie album in the charts and on the record racks of the local music stores. Roeg explores a little future tech with the available cutting-edge gadgets. Newton wears self-darkening sunglasses before they hit the market. Like Kubrick envisioned that cassettes and music-listening devices would get smaller in A Clockwork Orange, Roeg anticipates the Compact Disc or CD. As befitting alien machinery, it is globe-shaped.

The Visitor

David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton is no singer. He can’t even keep in tune. Sure, he puts out albums under the name The Visitor, but they don’t stand a chance on the charts up against such future-classics like Diamond Dogs or Young Americans. The Man Who Fell to Earth includes a scene with the album fully displayed and in the restored release of the film, Bowie puts it all out there.

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Bowie was supposed to write the soundtrack but Roeg went for a more American sound, hiring John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas. Phillips brought in Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, pedal steel session player BJ Cole and jazz percussionist Frank Ricotti. Roeg also used music from Japanese composer Stomu Yamash’ta and songs from Louis Armstrong and The Kingston Trio.

The Stars Look Very Different Today

The clarity of the new Bluray HD DVD version of The Man Who Fell to Earth is educational. It’s like a new film. I don’t believe I’ve seen a clear version of this, even in the movies when I saw it as a kid during its initial run. Okay, so some of the restored scenes are a little off character. That’s why they were taken out. But I’m glad to have them. They offer counterweight to each other and cancel the problems out. When the ever-peaceful and forgiving Tommy threatens Mary-Lou with a gun it is predictive roleplay to her betrayal with Bryce. There is so much betrayal in the movie but it is much clearer with the restoration.

The movie includes some in-joke cameos, like real-life astronaut Jim Lovell who was in charge of the unlucky Apollo 13 mission. Lovell is no spaced out space man, though. He steered that sucker back to earth and would be immortalized in film himself when Tom Hanks floated in zero gravity for Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Satirist Terry Southern, who wrote screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, The Cincinnati Kid, Casino Royale, Barbarella, Candy and The Magic Christian, plays a reporter. Bowie’s Young Americans album puts in an appearance next to the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The man who talked “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, narrated the original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Astronauts are basket cases. Major Tom was a junkie. Bowie had been preparing for this role since “Space Oddity” and before. He was a long time science fiction fan and brought all the excesses that came with fame, fame, with him in the limo. Bowie held that he was a coked out bystander who remembered nothing of the filming, though in the included interviews Candy Clark says nothing could be further from the truth. He was a total professional, at the top of his game and oh, so lovely to look at, like a pink monkey bird and that’s no hazy cosmic jive.