“We’d have probably done the same to you, if you’d come ’round our place.” – Thomas Newton
If you want a film as different as can be, one that is a sci-fi allegory that challenges, then here’s one you likely haven’t heard of. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is a strange one, often visually unique, teeming with symbolism that represents something meaningful. Rock star David Bowie made his film debut as an alien from another drought-plagued planet who came to Earth with a mission to ship water to his dying planet. The film’s director is Nicolas Roeg (“Walkabout,” “Don’t Look Now”), one of the most overlooked visionaries of the cinema. You don’t just see a narrative unfold with his films, you digest an entirely idiosyncratic mood with his work.
In summary, it has a similar outline to “E.T.” – an extra-terrestrial comes to Earth to explore, construct a purpose, and return home. Yet the film was somehow an allegory about the debilitations of alcoholism. The alien assumes the name Thomas Newton as he pursues his quest, gets sidetracked with booze and junk television (he views multiple T.V. boxes at once), becomes dependent on an earth woman – during this course abandons all idealism and forsakes his family back on his home planet.
The 1963 Walter Tevis novel doesn’t extrapolate as many themes as the movie. The book had an even interest with alcoholism and fear of nuclear war – a “paranoia” social concern that was long past dated in 1976. The Tevis novel is a spry, brainy-humor read, that wryly satirizes how an alien succumbs to human-like malaise. But the film accomplishes the same themes and more.
Newton is a genius. He hires a lawyer (Buck Henry as Oliver Farnsworth) who specializes in patents to seal nine new inventions that will advance electronics throughout the world. Not all of Newton’s inventions are revealed to us, but some of them have to do with revolutionary electronics. Newton will surpass competitor corporations, says the lawyer. “Mr. Newton, you can take RCA, Eastman Kodak and DuPont, for starters.” In a few short years, he will become worth an estimated $300 million. Newton needs more, he explains, to build a space vehicle that can outdo NASA. The implied purpose is to carry water back home.
Newton stays out of the public limelight and lets Farnsworth run his multi-million dollar corporation. While on holiday in New Mexico, he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a sweet girl but a total birdbrain. She introduces Newton to the basics of American life: Church, sex, television – and alcohol – which will stymie his productivity. Mary Lou, once a hotel maid, is now Newton’s romantic companion who lives with him in his reclusive house where they eventually do next to nothing together. She is undemanding, however, which must fit Newton’s requirements for a low-maintenance relationship.
Unconventionally, the film goes on tangents with supporting characters. We Farnsworth and his closeted relationship with a gay partner, a government “fixer” (Bernie Casey, as a social climber black man), and a college professor (Rip Torn as Nathan Bryce) who has graphic sexual interludes with his students. Bryce is most fascinating, preoccupied with sex addiction – a radical story theme for 1976 – who lands a job working for Newton, and overcomes his sexual conquests because he has found an occupational interest that drives him. This element was not in the book. Newton and Bryce: one addicted to alcohol, the other to sex.
Bryce is the first to suspect Newton has extra-terrestrial origins. But the government becomes suspicious, as well, for they recognize Newton is too advanced for earthly contemporaries. None of this is spelled out overtly, but is implied and ambiguous.
The film is more of a character study, anyway, emphasizing loneliness and displacement. The visuals get more trippy as Newton’s alcoholism progresses, and the baroque imagery suggests that Newton has psychic visions. We see the alien rituals (sex and mating perhaps?) back on his planet. The arid desert where his family dwells that suggests a simpler way of living than Earth. There are also shots of Newton in a trance where he somehow sees alien visits to Earth from a hundred years ago. I’ve seen this Roeg film three or four times over the years, and I recall that I found it bizarre and perplexing in my first viewing, but it’s all the more clear and delineated after seeing it in multiple viewings.
There are startling sequences that speak more of evolving cultural changes than plot, sometimes without Newton. Consider in 1976 how audacious it was to see a naked black man passionately kissing a naked white woman. Roeg makes this sequence lyrical and fervently alive, it is certainly a watershed moment in cinema.
We do get a big space shuttle launch sequence, done in a more quasi-documentary style, interspersing developments and new plot twists. But more intriguing are the scenes of Newton prodded by scientists. He is so numbed by alcohol that he can’t find the strength to defend himself in one scene, for the scientists don’t understand Newton’s dissimilar genetic makeup. This is as sad a moment as there is in film, and demonstrates how he has been broken by booze.
The entire film doesn’t work. There are some admittedly annoying passages, particularly one where Newton plays with a gun. This scene might say something about how this alien’s gentle façade has now transgressed, but goes over-the-top. His relationship with Mary Lou descends into the pathetic quality of indifference, but Mary Lou doesn’t get much wiser by the end. Perhaps she represents American complacency.
But how singular this film is. Roeg takes boundless risks, sometimes goes too far, and one might complain he attempts too much. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” was radical for its time, and too radical for our times now. It would never get made today. If its originality is entrancing for you, it will likely be equally thought-provoking for you for a very long time.
139 Minutes. Rated R.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / CEREBRAL / WEEKEND TRANCE-OUT
Film Cousins: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); “Starman” (1984); “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984); “Cocoon” (1985).