The Man Who Fell To Earth

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #304: Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.


Musee des Beaux Arts

About suf­fer­ing they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they un­der­stood
Its hu­man po­si­tion; how it takes place
While some­one else is eat­ing or open­ing a win­dow or just walk­ing dully along;
How, when the aged are rev­er­ently, pas­sion­ately wait­ing
For the mirac­u­lous birth, there al­ways must be
Children who did not spe­cially want it to hap­pen, skat­ing
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never for­got
That even the dread­ful mar­tyr­dom must run its course
Anyhow in a cor­ner, some un­tidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its in­no­cent be­hind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for in­stance: how every­thing turns away
Quite leisurely from the dis­as­ter; the plow­man may
Have heard the splash, the for­saken cry,
But for him it was not an im­por­tant fail­ure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs dis­ap­pear­ing into the green
Water; and the ex­pen­sive del­i­cate ship that must have seen
Something amaz­ing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had some­where to get to and sailed calmly on.

The plan­ets were surely aligned for the pro­duc­tion of The Man Who Fell To Earth. David Bowie was deep in the midst of his an­drog­yne star­man per­sona, Nicolas Roeg was grow­ing ever defter in his di­rec­to­rial skills and Walter Tevis pro­vided the novel to bring them all to­gether. I’d say all three are peas in a pod; com­bi­na­tions of mys­tic and cynic that para­dox­i­cally sub­vert the mech­a­nisms they hate by us­ing them; al­beit for dif­fer­ent goals. Bowie was a space prophet as Ziggy Stardust, of­fer­ing the hope tran­scen­dence through mu­sic and drugs to the piti­ful hu­mans on a hell­ish earth. Roeg was beat­ing the drum against ma­te­ri­al­ist American cul­ture and the soul­less­ness it en­gen­dered [and still does, in my hon­est opin­ion] and Tevis was ex­plor­ing the ex­is­ten­tial psy­chol­ogy of mod­ern life in his writ­ing.

This con­gru­ence fits hand-in-glove with my own speci­fic in­ter­ests: David Bowie, Cinema and Science Fiction and I am es­sen­tially in­un­dated with things to talk about in re­la­tion to this film. I’ll try to con­cen­trate on the specifics of the film it­self.

I’d best get this out of the way right off the bat. This film is full of sex and nu­dity. Chock full. Rip Torn plays the wom­an­iz­ing professor/​scientist Bryce, and must have had an ab­solutely won­der­ful time rolling around in his bed with at least half a dozen naked nu­bile co­eds. Yet Roeg is ob­vi­ously more ma­ture than I am, be­cause his uses of nu­dity, while tit­il­lat­ing, use that tit­il­la­tion to high­light and en­hance his cri­tique of American deca­dence. I find it rem­i­nis­cent of Fellini’s Satyricon in this re­spect.


Bowie’s char­ac­ter, the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, ar­rives on planet with a plan and a goal, but is ul­ti­mately un­pre­pared for the cul­ture which en­snares and de­stroys him, turns him trai­tor­ous. This pro­gress can be mon­i­tored by com­par­ing him through­out with the deeply flawed char­ac­ters with which he in­ter­acts. Graham Fuller’s es­say [linked be­low] cov­ers this down­fall very well, so I’ll skip it.

I didn’t par­tic­u­larly en­joy Walter Tevis’s book, but the movie keeps rather well to its plot, and is en­hanced and re­fined by Roeg’s treat­ment and Bowie’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion. I’m ac­tu­ally pretty taken aback at how much I en­joyed the film as cin­ema and not as en­ter­tain­ment [which is how I usu­ally like my sci-fi]. Although Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is bet­ter known for mak­ing Earth seem alien to us Earthlings, Tevis man­ages to make you be­lieve it and Roeg makes you skin-crawl­ingly feel it.

Roeg’s dis­dain for American cul­ture bor­ders on preachy, but it fits well with Newton’s turn-coat il­lu­sion­ment; it doesn’t over­whelm the film, barely. I won­der how much of Bowie’s taste in­flu­enced the pro­duc­tion val­ues of the film as well. The al­bum Low is ru­mored to be as­so­ci­ated with the film, [as the al­bum cover also sug­gests. It is a pretty good al­bum, sort of proto-​electronica/​ambient], but the Newton’s fas­ci­na­tion with Kabuki and Japanese aes­thet­ics hark back to the day’s of Ziggy Stardust, and Newton’s rude boy ap­pear­ance in pub­lic seems to echo the later stages of the Diamond Dogs tour.

The film is def­i­nitely worth a watch. The act­ing is su­perb on all fronts, es­pe­cially Candy Clark’s por­trayal of Mary-Lou, and al­though Roeg still uses the zoom far too heav­ily for my taste, its a beau­ti­ful film in all other as­pects.

DVD Beaver Review NSFW
Criterion Essay by Graham Fuller

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