The Man Who Fell to Earth

Thomas Jerome Newton is from another planet.  In a piece of canny 1970s casting, he is played by David Bowie.

Newton has come to Earth with a number of extremely valuable patents tucked under his arm.  His plan is: find the world’s greatest patent attorney, form a gigantic corporation that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars of income, and use the money to — to — well, that’s the part where I get lost.

Apparently his planet is in trouble.  They’re all out of water, and they desperately need water to — to — well I’m sure they need it to live, but all we ever see in the movie is that they use copious amounts of it in the course of their marital duties.  But that’s enough, fine.  Thomas Jerome Newton needs water or else he can’t fly through the air in sexual ecstasy with his wife in huge cascades of water.  So he’s come to Earth because we have water.  It’s like we’re a giant-sized Pleasure Chest store for him.  “Be right back honey, I have to pop down to Earth for some lubricant.”

He knows how Earthlings talk and think and what they value.  He knows all this because he’s been watching our television for decades on his home planet.  He knows we’re motivated by greed and materialism and he’s got a plan to use that greed to make a pile of money and — and — well again I’m less clear on that.

After many decades of living on Earth and building his fortune, he builds a spaceship to go back home.  What his plan is, I don’t know.  He’s not going to bring back a ton of water to his waterless planet and we’ve seen that his wife and children are already dead.

Now that I think of it, what’s going on on Newton’s home planet?  There seem to be only three people living there, his wife and kids.  They don’t have a house or food, all they have is a charmingly home-made papier-mache beehive with sails that trundles along on a track.  Yet somehow they got it together to send Newton to another planet, so presumably there’s a space center somewhere with rockets and a launchpad and people running it and all that stuff you need to send people into space.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t Newton just bring his wife and kids along?

But no, they stay behind and never age, because apparently the folks on Newton’s home planet don’t age, even the children remain the same size for decades.  And they wait by the trundling beehive, because — because — well I’m not clear on that either.  I think the trundling beehive is the planet’s mass-transit system, but since the beehive has stopped permanently in one spot there doesn’t seem to be much reason to wait there for Daddy to come home.

Anyway, after a very long time, Newton compiles his wealth to build a spaceship to get back home.  I don’t know what he’s going to do once he gets home, maybe he’s just a scout for Earth and he’s setting up his gigantic corporation so that he can start bringing his people here and have them live in splendor.

Just as he’s getting ready to get on his spaceship to go home, he gets kidnapped by — by — by an evil somebody, and his patent attorney is killed by the same evil somebody.  It’s unclear.  Is it another corporation, is it the government?  Somebody wants to derail Newton’s plans and they will stop at nothing to do it.

Newton is placed in exile in a hotel under guard.  He is studied by scientists.  The scientists seem both convinced that there’s nothing unusual about Newton and convinced that he is an alien.  In any case they make him very uncomfortable and he has no choice but to take comfort in large amounts of gin.

Eventually everyone loses interest in him and he escapes out into the world.  He makes a recording to be broadcast into space where his wife might hear it.  We never hear the recording but I’m guessing the message on it is something like: “Dear Wife: had a plan to use human greed to get water to us so we could havesex again but got screwed over by the same human greed I was hoping to exploit.  Never coming back.  Sorry.  Best to the kids.  PS: Don’t wait by the Beehive Station lying in the sand for decades — for God’s sake GO HOME!”

Strictly speaking, the movie falls into science-fiction, but as we can see, it is not the nuts-and-bolts wing of the genre but rather the spiritual/societal analysis wing.  Indeed, the movie is content to explain very little at all, in spite of being well over two hours long. 

The production design is perfunctory.  Newton’s inventions, which are supposed to be futuristic and amazing, are clunky, ugly and unappealing.  His rocket-building center is housed within a grain-elevator complex with nothing but chain-link fences for security.  Decades pass within but it remains steadfastly 1976.  Earthlings get old and grey and fat but records are still pressed on vinyl and cost less than five dollars, men still wear polyester leisure suits, and Newton even drives the same car throughout.  It’s as though Newton’s arrival on Earth brought the evolution of human design to a screeching halt.

The movie’s strategy of ignoring explanations has its strengths.  It’s moody and jarring and elusive, and Bowie is cooler than cool as the slowly dissipating visitor who becomes, alas, too accustomed to Earth ways.  In fact, I think that’s the real point of the movie after all, not to tell the story of aliens and government conspiracies but to dramatise the story of an idealistic young man who enters the world with a clear purpose and to show his increasing anxiety at being co-opted, distracted and annihlated by the inevitable crushing forces of capitalist greed and human frailty.  (Bowie, apparently, felt a strong connection to the character — he used images from the movie on two consecutive album covers — but did he realize that he, too, would eventually become human, falling from stardom to mere showbizhood?  Or is that, in fact, the subtext to his performance?)

This being the 70s, there’s also lots of nudity.

David Bowie would later reprise the “weird guy with a miraculous invention” role in The Prestige.  Rip Torn, who plays the only guy who knows Newton’s secret, would reprise the “guy who knows there are aliens on Earth” role in the Men in Black franchise.

The Criterion edition helpfully includes a copy of the original novel, which I have not read, but which I presume holds many of the answers to the movie’s narrative ellipses. hit counter html code


16 Responses to “The Man Who Fell to Earth”
  1. mr_noy says:

    I’ve put off buying past DVD editions of this film (3 by my count) but now that it’s gotten the Criterion treatment I might have to pick it up. (Thanks, by the way, for the heads up about Criterion’s 3-Disc Seven Samurai, it did not disappoint.)

    This has to be the quintessential Bowie performance. Yes, it’s stunt casting, but in this case it actually worked. (I was pleasantly surprised to see him give a genuine, restrained performance in The Prestige; I was half expecting Jareth in formal-wear) If anyone was born to play an alien, it was Bowie; specifically at this point in his career.

    I agree with you that it’s rather vague and illogical at times, but I’ve noticed that in the few other Roeg films I’ve seen. Still, I think it works well as a mood piece and as an allegory on the ills of our consumer-driven, corporate-run society.

    PS – I’m still slightly disturbed by the moment the young woman grabs Rip Torn’s penis and says to him (it) “Gee, you don’t look like my father.” I hope I’ve remembered that correctly because if I dreamed that I’m going to need serious help dealing with my Rip Torn issues.

    • Todd says:

      The Rip Torn Penis scene is actually more disturbing than that. It is a collage of Torn tussling in bed with a number of comely young lovelies, two of whom use the same line on poor Rip’s penis.

      I don’t think Roeg was suggesting that all these young ladies had sex with their fathers; I think they’re just busting Rip’s chops as part of their sexplay. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe two of them use the line because Rip asked them to. Or else maybe that was just a common sexytime joke back in America’s Bicentennial year.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    The Criterion edition helpfully includes a copy of the original novel, which I have not read, but which I presume holds many of the answers to the movie’s narrative ellipses.

    I love this trend. The copy of X-Men 3 I recently got had a tiny version of several of the very earliest X-Men comics, which was a kick. Maybe they’ll flip it around and special editions of the books will come with DVDs of teh movies. (I think the DVDs are cheaper per unit than the books.)

    • Todd says:

      In the case of Man, I honestly think Criterion included the novel as a supplement to the movie, because it’s impossible to stitch together the plot without it.

      While the DVD object itself is probably cheaper per unit than the book, a book doesn’t have to be restored from an original camera negative before it can be reproduced.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Well, yes, there’s a reason I added “per unit”. Incidentally, I got a copy of McKee’s Story a little while ago. They could have included a copy of the Adaptation DVD. It’s all about cross-marketing. Bing-bang.

        As it happens, I saw some bits of this, probably on edited cable, so as confusing as it was on DVD, I had no freaking idea what was going on other than that I knew he was an alien with patents.

        • Anonymous says:

          I was in the Tower Video on Sunset last night and saw that Fox/Lorber was selling a two-pack of their DVD of Kurosawa’s Ran along with the VHS edition. I had to pick it up and stare at it for a full minute. It made no sense. Wh — why — wh — what could possibly be the incentive for including a VHS copy of the same movie in a two-pack? Who would buy such a thing? Anyone with a DVD player is going to consider a VHS copy of the same movie as nothing but dead weight and “something they don’t need.” The only thing I could think is maybe if you had a DVD player but a half-wit hillbilly friend of yours only had a VHS player, you could get the DVD of Ran and give the VHS copy to your friend. But what person who owns only a VHS player is going to care to own a copy of Ran? I was utterly baffled.

          Let me know if the McKee does anything for you.

          • Todd says:

            — me, sorry.

          • craigjclark says:

            I can tell you exactly why you saw that — because Tower is emptying its warehouses and sending everything to the stores. I know this because we got multiple copies of the same exact item at my store. We also got a similar packaging for In the Realm of the Senses, which I actually saw somebody carrying around the other day, presumably with the intention of buying it.

            Apparently there have been a lot of things that we’ve returned to the warehouse over the years that have just been sitting around — even deleted and out-of-print items like those DVD/VHS editions. I guess the message is if we can sell them, great. If we can’t, we’re stuck with them anyway. Might as well have them out on a shelf.

  3. craigjclark says:

    To put things in perspective: I have seen this film about half a dozen times over the years. And thanks to the Criterion release, I have also read the book it is based on. From what I recall, Newton’s plan was somewhat clearer in the book, but not by much.

    This is my second-favorite Roeg film, after Don’t Look Now.

  4. kornleaf says:

    i feel bowie’s best work was in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

    oh, and bowie was amazing at being warhol in basquiat.

    • ghostgecko says:

      I still have a soft spot for Bowie as the Goblin King. The AFi near me ran Labyrinth recently and my friends who hadn’t seen it were all, “Isn’t that the one where he’s walking around with an enormous bulge in his pants?”. Yes it was, and even more eyepopping on the big screen, god bless ’em, in a kid’s movie.

      I haven’t seen TMWFTE in probably over a decade. I wasn’t really worried about the non-scifi content of it. Movies have almost never given much of a damn about actual science (Radioactivity creates city-stomping monsters? Sure, why not?). The science fiction is just a prop for exploring human psychology.

  5. And now for a game of “what if?” According to imdb, this movie was originally intended to be a vehicle for Peter O’Toole. Except for their similar builds, I can’t imagine him being in an experimental mess like this…but then, they probably would have gotten more money to make it if he’d said yes…

    • Todd says:

      I couldn’t find the reference to O’Toole, but I did see that Roeg originally wrote the part for — ! — Michael Crichton.

      Either one seems strange, since Roeg seemed to go out of his way to work with rock singers as often as he could back then.

      In any case, don’t be so sure about O’Toole’s desire to steer clear of experimental messes. Four years earlier he made the experimental mess The Ruling Class.

      • craigjclark says:

        Well, he used Jagger in Performance, Bowie in Man and Art Garfunkle in Bad Timing. Unless I’m forgetting something obvious, that’s pretty much where that trend stopped.

        And I got to see The Ruling Class at a repertory screening several years back. (It was on a bill with the rare John Cleese short Romance with a Double Bass) What a mess it was, but I was glad I saw it on a movie screen.

        • curt_holman says:

          “Experimental mess”

          ‘The Ruling Class’ began as a play by Peter Barnes, and it strikes me as something that would make PERFECT sense if it were on the stage, with a cast and director who “get it.” I don’t think director Peter Medak figured out how to “open it up” for film.

          It’s probably my favorite Peter O’Toole performance, and Barnes has a relatively small but fascinating body of work as a playwright.

  6. ndgmtlcd says:

    This film should be paired with “The Ice Pirates (1984)” (also known as “Jason and The Ice Pirates”).