Science-fiction drama, western, love story, metaphysical mystery, satire of modern America—The Man Who Fell to Earth is the most beguiling of the films that, in a dozen years embracing the 1970s, established Nicolas Roeg as a mainstream heir to such 1960s experimentalists as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, and Chris Marker. With its fragmented narrative, its genre hopping, its strategic crosscutting, and its dense tapestry of disassociative visual and musical allusions, the film was an enigma for many of the British critics who warily reviewed it in April 1976, and no less so for their American counterparts when it was released in the United States, minus twenty crucial minutes, two months later.
Indeed, it was a puzzle to many of those involved in bringing it to the screen. David Bowie, who claimed he never read the script, experienced it primarily as a love story. Buck Henry thought it might be a metaphor for the misunderstood artist. Donald Rugoff, who paid $800,000 to acquire the U.S. distribution rights to the $4 million project and then oversaw its butchering after taking advice from a psychiatry professor and college students, among others, admitted that he didn’t understand it and felt “it was one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen.”
The premise is simple enough. Thomas Jerome Newton, a clairvoyant alien, played with gentleness and reserve by Bowie, falls to Earth in New Mexico. Carrying a British passport and nine lucrative electronics patents, he makes his way to Manhattan and pays a business call on Farnsworth (Henry), a patent lawyer, whom he hires to establish and run a global communications corporation that will generate massive wealth through its technological innovations (which include a precursor to digital photography). Newton becomes deeply involved with two other earthlings: Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), the blowsy, garrulous hotel maid who becomes his lover, and Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn), a cynical, disillusioned Chicago chemistry professor who renounces his life as a campus womanizer to become Newton’s chief scientific consultant.
Newton’s mission, stated more explicitly in Walter Tevis’s 1963 source novel than in Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg’s adaptation, is to develop sources of energy and then a space program, with which he seeks to deliver his planet’s few survivors. These include his wife and two kids, who carry, in tubes wrapped around their bodies, what little water remains to them. Successive nuclear wars have inflicted droughts on the planet, the book tells us.
The film offers us a few glimpses of Newton and his family plodding around the dunes of their dying planet, and what strikes us is the conventionality of these rote sci-fi images. Roeg is more interested in showing how life on Earth is stranger and more disconcerting than anything in outer space. An early shot of Newton lying on his back on a bench outside a bric-a-brac store and looking up at us—at our topsy-turvy world—sets a mood of abstruseness and disorientation that Roeg invites us to fall into. In a sense, Newton is Alice, and late twentieth-century America is a corrupt Wonderland defined by a government that orders Farnsworth’s execution; by television culture, which enslaves Newton; and by the panaceas of sex, which Bryce indulges in with his students, and alcohol and religion, which enable Mary-Lou to stave off self-awareness.
As both panorama and chamber piece, the film is beautiful to look at, and beautiful, too, in its mysteriousness, in the challenge it sets us as viewers. It is as kaleidoscopic as Roeg and codirector Donald Cammell’s Performance but painted on a much broader canvas, and so needs to be experienced in its full glory if comprehensibility is an object, which is why the cuts made to the original American release were especially moronic. Prompted by an effort to sanitize the movie, Rugoff cut the sequences of Bryce fooling around in bed with his students; the shot of Mary-Lou urinating from the shock of seeing Newton in his alien state; the crucial sex-and-guns sequence in which Newton, in captivity, destroys his relationship with Mary-Lou; and the scene of Bryce dressed absurdly as Santa Claus. These excised scenes are concerned with the characters’ ability to evolve, or not, through their interaction with Newton. Their absence leaves the characters’ stories incomplete.
Playing Newton as pale, gaunt, and tremulous, Bowie made his exquisite film acting debut in The Man Who Fell to Earth, in a role that chimed iconographically with his androgynous, futuristic pop persona of the early seventies. Until his apparent genderlessness is revealed (and causes Mary-Lou’s accident), his most striking characteristic is his orange hair, a beacon that seems at times to confer an amber glow on the mise-en-scène. Shots of his head from behind underscore Newton’s vulnerability, presaging his eventual capture and brutal humanizing by the State Department, which moves to terminate his corporation’s destabilizing effect on the American economy, and fleetingly dips the movie’s toe into the political paranoia thriller.
As critic Tom Milne has suggested, this defenselessness is central to the exchanging of identities and the shifting of power dynamics between the characters in The Man Who Fell to Earth. This also occurs in Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing, and Track 29, the other films on which Roeg’s reputation as an auteur is based. As Newton becomes progressively more human, he becomes susceptible to the same vices that taint his intimates: the aggrandizement of power and wealth (Farnsworth), alcoholism and emotional dependency (Mary-Lou), abusive sexual behavior (Bryce). They, in turn, in Milne’s words, “rediscover something of that vulnerability,” shedding their protective carapaces even as they variously let Newton down, because, as humans, that is what they are fated to do.
Alien or human or both, Newton is a fallen angel, in the old sense of an angel as messenger. (He has much in common with the visitor who masquerades as the long lost son of a fantasizing housewife in Track 29, based by Dennis Potter on one of his “angel” plays.) He is inscribed as Icarus in a shot of Brueghel’s painting and through W. H. Auden’s rueful poem about it (contained in a book Bryce sends to his daughter). Roeg presumably had in mind, too, William Blake’s satirical vision of Sir Isaac Newton, the English philosopher and scientist, as an angel of darkness who appeared as “a mighty spirit” leaping from the “land of Albion [England]” to awaken the dead to judgment. Also in the mix is Blake’s time-traveling Christlike alter ego, Los, “that Shadowy Prophet who Six Thousand Years ago / Fell from my station in the Eternal Bosom . . . I return! Both Time & Space obey my will.”
And time in the movie obeys Roeg and Mayersberg’s will. Their use of omissions and abrupt transitions in the structuring of the narrative, as it follows Newton’s stream of consciousness, causes time to become elastic: years, decades, centuries pass us by in a single cut, and without warning. A little history of man unfolds before us. Stuck on Earth, unable to save his people, unable even to age, Newton becomes a passive receptacle for everything that everyone in the film, and everyone watching, wants to bring to him—as well as a vehicle for the Englishman Roeg’s scathing critic of America’s materialistic culture.
Newton, of course, is not only from the “ancient time” of Blake’s “Jerusalem”—which he sings distractedly in Mary-Lou’s church—but also from the future. His memories of his planet could certainly be of Earth centuries (or less) after the events depicted in the film. Thirty years after Roeg filmed The Man Who Fell to Earth, over six weeks in July and August 1975, mostly around Lake Fenton, in New Mexico, it seems eerily prophetic of Earth’s own fate should global warming remain unchecked. Should we seek “outside” help, as Newton does? Roeg has that base covered: when Bryce apologizes to Newton for the way he has been betrayed and corrupted on Earth, Newton says a visitor to his planet could have expected the same treatment. The idea that human nature is the same the universe over, even when it’s nonhuman, is a bitter cosmic joke. But the joke doubles back on itself, because Newton’s planet is our own.
“How strange your trains are,” Newton says in one of his many reflective moments. They thread through the movie, connoting the passage of time, the kind of fulfilling future that Mary-Lou suspects is closed to her (as she walks toward the tracks after her first date with Newton), and the doomed future that Newton knows. One of the first things he sees on Earth is a decrepit locomotive that triggers a memory of the futuristic little engine he boarded as he set out on his journey to the “present.” It’s a train to now but ultimately to nowhere—the one, Roeg’s glittering film implies, we’re all on. And it’s already left the station.
Graham Fuller is a New York-based film critic. He contributes to Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and Vanity Fair. This piece previously appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 edition of The Man Who Fell to Earth.