The year before Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a science fiction movie appeared that appealed to an entirely different kind of audience. A highly original movie made from the thinnest of science fiction premises, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a cinematic triumph of ideas and emotions. It ultimately becomes a frustrating and despairing criticism of humanity, but this long, complex and sensual story of a stranger in a strange land will have a big appeal for lovers of artsy puzzle pictures.
Poor Thomas Jerome Newton hasn't got an exterrestrial's chance in Area 51 - no sooner does he walk into a shop with a gold ring, than the owner cheats him by offering only $20 for it.
As a thriller, The Man Who Fell to Earth isn't at all bad. In his first film role, cadaverous David Bowie is a natural for appearing alien. His amphi-sexual looks and soft British voice go far in persuading us that he is indeed from outer space. Although we see a number of fantastic things occur, most of them are from Newton's odd-perception POV, with the exception of the one time he reveals himself in his earless, genital-challenged form. We have to take him at his word that he's from beyond the stars. 1
The Man Who Fell to Earth quickly demonstrates that its aims are not along convential sci-fi lines. Newton is less a real E.T., than a post-modern Baron Munchausen. Almost no space gadgetry is on view except in one wishful-thinking daydream sequence. Apparently half a century passes, but clothing and vehicles stay exactly the same even as faces change. And the actual 'plot' makes little effort to flesh out Newton's abortive space mission.
The liner notes of an earlier Anchor Bay disc pointed out that any civilization that can transport a man across the universe faster than the speed of light should be able to derive water from hydrogen one way or another. Newton comes well-equipped to start a gigantic corporation, but his alien buddies gave him no way to get back, other than by encouraging Earth scientists to invent a vehicle for him. Why doesn't he just hand over the blueprints for whatever device projected him to Earth in the first place?
Obviously, Paul Mayersberg's trippy screenplay is more concerned with accentuating themes on a more universal plane. Newton is literally alienated, but he also experiences a profound need for human companionship (if not love) and forms several very human bonds. Alas, the more human he becomes, the more faulty his judgment. By foolishly revealing his identity to the hearty but corruptable Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn, again playing Judas as he did in King of Kings), Newton gives up all hope for his mission.
Newton is eventually checkmated by human institutions that even Klaatu and Gort would have a hard time cracking. His human operative Oliver Farnsworth is a fairly reliable choice to run his businesses, but the corporate competition that muscles in on Newton's World Enterprises is a boardroom version of Murder, Incorporated. The paranoid world presented is the kind where persistent buyers lean on resistant sellers to 'take the wider view', in the same way that big nations impose their will on smaller ones - legalistic talk, followed by cold steel.
The Man Who Fell to Earth's best touches are personal. The way Newton connects with the good-hearted Mary-Lou, Oliver Farnsworth's careful husbandry of the business and his relationship with his male partner all seem healthy. Newton's skewed perceptions requires watching a dozen televisions at the same time to occupy his mind, which gives poor Mary-Lou grief but allows editor Graeme Clifford more raw film footage from which to weave bizarre montages. These are effective even when they are less than inspired - Mary Lou and Nathan Bryce talk around the issue of betraying Newton, all intercut with parallel material from the end of The Third Man.
Some of the earliest science fiction touched on similar thematic ideas, the ones Mayersberg is intent on making into irrelevant background material. As in This Island Earth, aliens obviously more adavanced than Earthlings arrive and then unaccountably expect humans to 'do the science' for them. Like the alien of The Man from Planet X, Newton is captured and destroyed by men more concerned with profit than study or communication. The Man Who Fell to Earth is best when it imagines the psychological state of alienation. Thomas Jerome Newton is a freak and an eccentric who behaves more like Howard Hughes than a monster from outer space. When the powers that be decide to study him like a lab animal, they don't give a damn that he's from outer space. His enormously profitable companies are upsetting the established monopolies that are the ultimate law.
If Roeg isn't sex-obsessed, he's certainly one of the more successful directors at using the 70s freedom of the screen to present sexual behavior. Much of the R-rated content of the show was cut from the first American release of the film, and there's a lot of full-frontal, full dorsal, and full-on-everything footage. Yet it's all in the service of the story and the emotions of the characters, and even when it goes far beyond what the MPAA (or most actors) would now permit, none of it seems exploitative. Rip Torn's dalliances with a series of interchangeable college girls are so identical, it looks as if Torn were allowed to repeat the same script pages with several actresses just for the extra fun to be had. Bowie and Clark's bedroom abandon goes beyond anything in a David Lynch film. Even the number one corporate villain played by Bernie Casey is given a sensual scene with a loving wife (Claudia Jennings) Roeg is one director who can ask his actors to disrobe without making everyone involved look foolish.
First-time viewers are bound to be thrown for a loop by the editing, which uses all of the time-slip fragmentation tricks learned in earlier Roeg collaborations like Petulia and Don't Look Now. Combine Newton's strange set of perceptory senses with his imaginings (?) of what's happening back on his home planet, with a time sense that leaps about at will, and linear-minded people will quickly throw in the towel. At one point, Newton's limo suddenly leaps back 100 years for a brief and bewildering encounter with a pioneer family. It's a throwaway that makes us wonder less about the extent of Newton's alien powers, than the director's multi-leveled aims.
Near the end of the show, as all of Newton's plans are falling apart, we're suddenly given an imagined vision of success, as he prepares to board his completed spaceship for the return flight, accepting the congratulations of a huge mob, which includes the real Jim Lovell from Apollo 13! The scene comes almost out of nowhere, but instead of being gratuitous, it provides an emotional cliff from which Newton's hopes can plunge, Icarus-like: yet another myth in Mayersberg's list of on-screen references.
Viewers expecting sci-fi eye candy as offered by the tinsel and plexiglass boredom of the same year's Logan's Run will be sorely disappointed in The Man Who Fell to Earth's minimalist designs and props. Newton's home planet is pictured as an ordinary desert with with a prop alien train that looks as if it were cobbled together as a homecoming float. The aliens wear tight plastic suits with water piped through them in tiny tubes, reminding one more of a bunch of aquarium accessories than an alien garb. Just as space travel is pictured with a couple of stock shots and a flash of light, the hardcore SciFi content here is merely representational. Made in 1976, before the Internet or even home computers, the only one of Newton's nine patents that's pictured is his instant camera, and the final design even for that is less than inspiring. Instead of throwing inadequate resources at slick realism and failing, as in Zardoz, The Man Who Fell to Earth stays in virgin minimalist territory, hewing closer to Alphaville's poetic artificiality. 2
Thomas Jerome Newton ends up much like Godard's Henri Dickson in Alphaville, a total burn-out whose mission was given up ages ago. But Mayerberg's Newton is even more mysterious, a man who will never age (similar to the man who can never die in The Asphyx), doomed to lounge around the world for eternity in a dissipated stupor. Newton's malaise has considerable depth and feeling. The man who betrayed him has no guilt, and Newton has no bitterness, even though it seems he will never make contact with his (dead?) planet again. Earth becomes a strange kind of purgatory, even for an ultra-chic rock star in a camel's hair coat and black fedora.
Criterion's lavish DVD of The Man Who Fell to Earth is a two-disc set that comes in a fancy box together with Walter Tevis' original novel. The beautifully mastered feature is enhanced and the audio is in 2.0 Stereo. Buck Henry and David Bowie join Nicolas Roeg on a wide-ranging audio commentary. Henry actually gets more into film theory-speak than does Roeg, although he makes a solid effort at communicating his directorial aims and methods.
Disc producer Karen Stetler (given standout billing) brings a number of good interviews to the second disc. Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg has a fascinating flow of opinions and ideas on the way Walter Tevis' original novel was transformed, and how he stripped obvious symbolic imagery and replaced it with culture references ("Tommy Can You Hear Me?"). Mayersberg is very precise in what he wants to convey, a quality that the edited interviews with Candy Clark and Rip Torn could use a bit more of. Clark is open and detailed about the filming experience but this one has problems sustaining the same level of interest.
Well edited but only for real diehards are audio interviews with the production designer and costume designer. On the other hand, an archival radio interview with author Walter Tevis is an easy listen. Tevis also wrote The Hustler and the author and Mayersberg are able to draw apt parallels between the two stories. A selection of UK and US trailers and teasers round out the show; one trailer is narrated by William Shatner. Graham Fuller and Jack Matthews contribute essays on the film and Walter Tevis in the insert booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man Who Fell to Earth rates:
1. A limey from space? Makes perfect sense, as Michael Rennie proved without a doubt in The Day the Earth Stood Still, made 25 years earlier. Newton is sort of the Son of Klaatu, in a manner of speaking. He should have brought Gort along as insurance. Newton also has an unusual interest in trains, just as did Klaatu.
2. A repeated two-shot of Bowie and Clark, alternately fading to black
and then fading up to white, is a clear homage to Jean-Luc Godard's Lemmy Caution Sci-Fi spy epic.