Sunday 31 May 2009

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Stars: David Bowie, Candy Clark and Rip Torn

In 1976 Nicolas Roeg was already a major name in British film, though his prominence was recent. He was mostly self taught, having never been to film school, but his credits go as far back as assistant cameraman on Calling Bulldog Drummond in 1951. He really arrived in the public's attention in 1970 when he photographed and co-directed Performance, an intriguing film co-starring well known rock star Mick Jagger. Here, after two further highly regarded films (Walkabout and Don't Look Now), he cast another well known rock star in this adaptation of Walter Tevis's science fiction novel.

David Bowie is the title character, an alien who visits the Earth to obtain a water supply for his own dying planet, and as you can imagine, the Bowie of 1976 was a good choice for the part. He looks like a human being but one that remains somehow detached from the rest of humanity. It isn't just his orange hair and androgynous features, it's how believable he becomes uncomfortable when his car travels more than 30mph or how he collapses bleeding when he finds himself in a lift. To American audiences, I'm sure his English accent helped too, as this alien has a British passport in the name of Thomas Jerome Newton.

His intentions aren't immediately apparent but to achieve them he starts up a huge company, World Enterprises, with the help of a patent lawyer called Oliver Farnsworth, given that his assets begin with a set of basic patents that in themselves threaten a whole string of other huge companies. The initial aim is to acquire huge amounts of money ($300m, the initial estimate of what the patents could be worth, just isn't enough), but he gradually focuses his company on the specific tasks at hand. Meanwhile he acquires a couple of key people, though the reasons for why they're key are as mysterious as he is.

One is a girlfriend called Mary-Lou, who he literally acquires, at the appropriately named Hotel Artesia in New Mexico. He offers her next to no encouragement and even tells her that he's married, but she seems to effectively move in and become part of his life. He lets her but we can't help but wonder why; if this wasn't a movie with a mysterious purpose we'd think it was just co-dependency. She's played by Candy Clark, a major name after American Graffiti and after looking at her filmography, I'm rather surprised I've seen so many of her films.

The other is Rip Torn as a university professor called Nathan Bryce, who is frustrated in academia to the degree that he apparently spends more of his time bedding his students than he does on university work. Once hired by World Enterprises though, he finds direction and focus in his life, befriending Newton and eventually uncovering his secrets. Strangely we find most of this out long before we find out what he's actually doing; in fact we find much of it out before even he finds out what he's actually doing. Such is the mystery.

And this is probably one reason why this film feels like it ought to be more than it is. It feels like something important, something visionary, something to pay serious attention to. Some scenes are haunting and most of it is beautiful. Yet it's also disjointed, fragmentary and overly full of imagery that doesn't seem to fit. What's surprising to me is that I'm not talking about the dream sequences or visions or strange communicative channels, because they generally seem to work fine. It's the conglomeration of different cultures for apparently no purpose: especially Japanese culture, for some reason.

The other reason is the fact that the second half of the film is even more mysterious than the first, mostly because it can be read in a number of completely different ways. It could be that the American government becomes highly concerned with the release of so many different technologies onto the market in such a short term that they intervene in extreme ways to stop this from happening, thus also stopping Newton's quest in its tracks, though over considerable time he ceases to be a problem and literally discovers that his prison is unlocked. It could be that Newton is not really an alien after all, merely an English genius who goes insane, but this doesn't gel with the source material.

It could also be that Roeg, and/or Paul Mayersberg who wrote the screenplay from the novel by Walter Tevis, just got caught up in the excess of the 1970s and let the film run maybe an hour longer than it should have run. It is certainly a film of excess, exhibiting much more of all three of the lead characters (Bowie, Clark and Torn) than we may have wanted to see. Full frontal nudity was never a huge problem in art film of the '70s and Roeg/Mayersberg obviously had a strong will to introduce such sexuality into a story that was generally devoid of it. This second half really doesn't do much at all and to a large degree the film would benefit from its absence.

Incidentally, I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth long ago, perhaps far enough back that it was before I first read Watchmen, making it at least twenty years. Viewing now, after reading Watchmen every couple of years ever since, I can't help but see the influence. Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias has to have been fashioned on Thomas Jerome Newton, at least to a large degree. The omnipresent W of World Enterprises is a precursor to the omnipresent V of Veidt Enterprises, just as Newton is the precursor to Veidt: the starting from scratch, the superior intellect, the wall of TVs as sensory input, the building of a corporate empire to further a personal gain.


Anonymous said...

hmmm, well, i'd seen TMWFTE a few times (cut for commercials, and uncut) and Watchmen only once...

i'm afraid there is an even more striking parallel with Roeg's film (and Tevis' novel) to Moore's / Gibbon's graphic novel than you mention, and that is how technology + madness (sin) = ruin; a classic theme in Sci-Fi, repeated over and over again in its various guises.

i mean, it isn't just Adrian Veidt caught up in the tech "madness", it is also Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) and Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl II) whom lose themselves in the works, as well. i really didn't come here to talk about "Watchmen", though.

members of the audience whom actually stick with the film sense that Newton's growing disconnection (you use the word "detached") from his mission, his cultural identification and his soul will probably result in the death of himself and his fellow Antheans;

of course, most audiences don't quite expect a "superior" alien being to fall prey to psychological disconnection, sexual seduction, alcohol abuse, physical abuse at the hands of others and death, even though we see these similar traits and excesses in Dr. Bryce, Mary-Lou and Oliver Farnsworth.

what we actually hope for is an alien superman whom saves the day, though lanky and feminine, but the inhabitants of Earth (particularly a North American scientist, a gay businessman and a poor, lonely woman) prove to be black widow spiders to Newton's fly.

the transition between Tevis' original novel and Roeg's film is difficult and complicated; the movie is somewhat true to the main themes of the novel, but the book adds greater dimension to the characters as the reader is better able to see from their perspective.

this is a fairly important distinction, because the gravity of the film weighs down on the audience from situations in the script and Roeg's cinematic eye and less from our (somewhat) intimate knowledge of the characters.

what is critical in a story such as this is that the audience cares about the characters (even if we hate them) and is not as detached or dissociated as the characters themselves, and i think the film is mostly unsuccessful in doing this.

i heard about Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind", still haven't seen it yet, but i have seen Zemeckis' "Castaway" and i totally see how audiences successfully grow to care about a lead character who is (or becomes) dissociated.

one final example of this i will cite is found in Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend"(, and the book has never successfully translated to film well); the reader of IAL knows that the lead character is already doomed, but we take the trip to hell with him anyway because he is written in a compelling manner.

so, you kind of have to ask these questions about Roeg's movie to see if the trip is worth taking: is the Newton of the film compelling, and do we care about what happens to him throughout the course of the film? or, do we just lose ourselves in the dazzling visuals and emotional battery as the main character does?

is this a trip we want to take?


Anonymous said...

going on about the movie yesterday made me see it again today... on youtube; it was serialized in 19 parts, 5 minutes each, lol.

anyway, it was pretty cool.

i was way too young and inexperienced in many areas of life to really have enjoyed it as i do now, and i still have a long way to go.

to further comment, i see that Roeg, Mayersberg and crew told an almost straightforward story, not quite linear, and understandable on the surface.

i also see there is a lot of carefully constructed ambiguity where the viewer can bring multiple meaning to the entire film, and not just in the first half.

for example, Newton says he comes from Sussex, but we assume he is an alien from another planet... and yet, when he is later probed and examined he is found indistinguishable from other humans. so, for all intents and purposes, we can believe he is practically human though alien in nature.

another example is how much attention the movie gives the family structure: Bryce is separated from his family and screws around a lot, Newton is also separated from his family (trying to be a faithful husband and father), but Peters (Bernie Casey) is a seemingly successful husband... i almost feel like the movie is making a subtle statement about the disintegration of the family.

by the way, i got a kick out of seeing Claudia Jennings as Bernie Casey's movie wife, even though uncredited.

there are also a few references to the Bible, church hymns, salvation (some of these got cut from the series i saw), so some viewer could almost get the idea that Newton was some likeness of Jesus... and then there's the body of Farnsworth falling to the ground (shades of The Comedian from "Watchmen") forming an upside-down cross.

i feel like Bowie's performance suggests an almost angelic persona, like an angel were cast down to earth as a demon will be cast into Hell.

then, there's television... TV is all over the place, even on the planet Anthea; curiously, there is no mention in the movie of the name of Newton's home planet, as if he could be construed as a fellow human from another country.

another beautiful connection the movie makes is how Newton leaves his home planet Anthea to reside in New Mexico, another dry, waterless desert; even though he wants the water, he longs to be home even more.

one cinematic element i noticed is that the camera angles are mostly at eye level, so the viewer can almost be close to the characters, but the viewer is also put at a distance because there are no POV shots or extreme closeups; what really draws the audience to the characters more than the camera is the acting.

i feel the sex scene between Clark and Bowie is entirely necessary to flesh out characterization... curiously, the scene seems like two adults acting like kids making love and succeeding at times (and a little scary); not at all like the (what the heck was that?) sex scene in "Watchmen", which i feel is unnatural and contrived.

another curiosity is how Newton gets let off the hook by the doctors when we know human beings are such complete bastards, as if an unseen hand showed him mercy, because we know exactly what we'd do with an actual alien if doctors got them in an operating room...

it ain't pretty.

well, there's a lot more i could read in, but that's the wonderful thing about good art; you could just keep talking about it and keep feeling different nuances from it.

i have to end by letting you know i am a huge Bowie fan, and Newton was no Ziggy;

Bowie was Ziggy.

thank you for graciously offering the opportunity to comment on your blog.


astronomius said...

hey, Hal, i'm sorry if i stunk up your review before, but i wanted to end my previous comments on this note;

i had a blast thinking the film over after i saw (a version of) it last week, but i also bought a Criterion Collection copy of it on DVD and recently reviewed it online.

the story is almost a forensic case of total depravity (and a brief mention of The Savior) with a wide enough cross section of humanity for characters, yet its central theme and film-making style brings the film more into the realm of religious allegory...

a visiting alien from an advanced civilization (as its lead character) to take the most devastating fall possible among humans explains the doctrine of total depravity in an unexpectedly fresh and comprehensive manner, while remaining true(ly sordid) to the "humanity" of all of its characters.

the beauty of these characters is that they are fully realized on film in the performances, while described in brief, spot-on detail and also rich in varied, wicked texture.

the film is definitely clever and dark, and may also be viewed as perversely humorous... especially when you realize "the butler did it", but i won't explain the spoiler.

casting David Bowie (my all-time, favorite performer)for the film was a master stroke on the part of the film's producers (one in particular, i researched; they originally wanted Peter O'Toole! lol, but Si Litvanoff loves his rock stars), because he sprang his music career off from playing a "humane alien" for years.

"Man..." is a brilliant film that really gets its points across, especially when the viewer looks past the visual flourishes for story description, strange sex, loaded barbs and our own mirror reflection looking back.

i think the first half of the film is just a warm-up to the second, because the last half of the film is stunning and heavy in its own way; if the audience didn't take it this way, they were caught up in the "excesses"

"Man..." is Roeg's/Mayersberg's/Tevis' toned-down fantasy of our reflection in the abyss looking back and a version of (what the Bible refers to as) lost souls (even from another planet) gaining the world.

this is a great cautionary tale, if you can enjoy its excesses and see (through) the film('s message) wind down to its finale.

i'm a fan.