The Man Who Fell to Earth
Danny Peary, Cult Movies 2, Delta/Dell Publishing 1983
1976 Great Britain; British Lion (released by Cinema 5 in the U.S.)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producers: Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings
Screenplay: Paul Mayersburg
From the novel by Walter Tevis
Cinematography: Anthony Richmond
Music: John Phillips
Editor: Graeme Clifford
Running time: 140 minutes (Cinema 5 cut the picture when it was first distributed in America. Prints ran at 117, 120 or 125 minutes, according to different sources. In 1980 a new regime at Cinema 5 restored the picture to its original length.)
Cast: David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth), Bernie Casey (Peters), Jackson D. Kane (Professor Canutti), Rick Riccardo (Trevor), Tony Mascia (Arthur), Captain James Lovell (himself)
Synopsis: A space traveler plummets to earth, landing in a lake in New Mexico. He drinks water and thinks of his barren planet, where his wife and two children are dying of thirst.
Using the name Thomas Jerome Newton, he goes to New York to speak to lawyer Oliver Farnsworth. Farnsworth is amazed that Newton has nine basic patents. He will be able to earn $300 million in three years. "I need more," says Newton, not explaining why. He enlists Farnsworth's aid to build a great corporation, World Enterprises. Even by playing fairly, World Enterprises should soon make some other corporations obsolete.
Nathan Bryce, a divorced Chicago chemistry professor, spends his time making love to his female students. He becomes fascinated with World Color's self-developing film, which can be bought very inexpensively (free cameras are thrown in). He wonders who the reclusive Newton is and starts making inquiries.
Using the alias Mr. Sussex, Newton travels to New Mexico. At his hotel he meets Mary-Lou, a maid who helps him when he becomes sick from a fast elevator ride. She becomes his constant companion and lover. She brings him a television set, and influences him to drink gin. Eventually, he watches many television sets at once and drinks incessantly. Still missing his family, he initiates a space program with all the money he has made.
Farnsworth hires Bryce to come to New Mexico and work on the secret project. Bryce lives in a cabin on the other side of the lake from Newton and Mary-Lou. He secretly takes X rays of Newton and discovers that Newton's form is totally alien. Newton, who can see X rays, readily admits he is an alien. He says he has no intention of causing harm to earthlings.
The project is taking too long. All Newton does is drink and watch television. He had watched American TV for years on his planet but never guessed that it revealed nothing about the human condition. As he becomes more human, he feels life is futile.
His relationship with Mary-Lou deteriorates when she demands more attention. He strips off his eartling guise, and she is terrified by his alien form. She can't make love to him, although she does love him. Farnsworth buys Mary-Lou off to get her away from Newton. She doesn't want the money -- she wants Tommy.
Capitalist companies pressure Farnsworth to sell World Enterprises. He refuses. Farnsworth and his gay lover Trevor are hurled out the window of their New York apartment and killed. Newton is taken prisoner. For years he is held in a deserted suite in a hotel and subjected to painful tests. World Enterprises goes bankrupt. Bryce begins to work for Peters, who initiated Newton's kidnapping. Bryce and Mary-Lou marry.
Newton escapes his prison once no one cares about him anymore. He holds no animosity towards anyone. He records an album called The Visitor, which he hopes his wife, who may already have died from thirst, will hear. Knowing he can never go back home, he can never save his dying family, that he has failed, Newton is full of self-pity. He will spend the rest of his life on earth, as a drunkard.
There is some validity to the seemingly wild notion that The Wizard of Oz (1939), with its journey into a mysterious world, fantasy elements, and homesickness theme, has influenced the majority of pictures made since. In fact, Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) is The Wizard of Oz in reverse: instead of having one of us (Dorothy) travel to an alien environment where three friendly inhabitants (the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion) facilitate a desired return home, a peaceful alien (E.T.) visits our world and three of us (the three children) help it find a way back home. Likewise, in the flawed yet fascinating The Man Who Fell to Earth, peaceful alien Thomas Jerome Newton becomes stranded on our planet and three earthlings (Farnsworth, Mary-Lou, and Bryce) try to help him accomplish his plan, which, although they don't fully realize it, is to build a spaceship capable of traveling to his planet. But The Wizard of Oz (the film, not L. Frank Baum's somewhat gloomy book) and E.T. are modern fairy tales in the sense that they provide children with the happy, consoling endings they have become accustomed to. Like Terry Gilliam's Oz-influenced Time Bandits (1981), The Man Who Fell to Earth is an old-fashioned fairy tale for those adults who read Jonathan Swift and believe that our world, and those who run it, can be cold, cruel, and unfair. And it's a fairy tale for those kids who still read those surprisingly morbid Grimm stories about characters who fall from grace (Newton's "fall" to earth signifies his descent into purgatory) and are punished (how Newton suffers). Unlike in the Grimm stories, he does not repent and receive salvation -- Newton chooses to wallow in self-pity rather than comes to terms with his own fallibility and with the other reasons his mission fails, so he dooms himself to eternal damnation. Tragically, Newton can never go home: his three friends aren't as comforting or resourceful as Dorothy's and E.T.'s, and his own homeward drive is far too weak for him to accomplish the near impossible.
Director Nicolas Roeg never spells out what Newton's mission on earth is. Always one who attempts to turn his viewers into puzzle solvers (which explains his fragmentary editing style), Roeg intentionally did away with Walter Tevis's explanation. In Tevis's novel Newton was sent from distant Anthea to build a ship that will ferry Antheans from their dying planet back to earth. Once on earth, the Antheans intend to become dominant in business (setting up many World Enterprises divisions), politics, and the military, on an international scale. Just as viewers of Raoul Walsh's bizarre satire The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) somehow root for angel Jack Benny to destroy our evil earth, readers of Tevis's book desire an Anthean takeover because only then we can avoid a nuclear war: it's an interesting concept. In the film, there is no mention of a specific planet called Anthea, nor must we consider a choice between colonization and nuclear destruction. We can't even understand the purpose of Newton's space vehicle: does he want to travel back to his planet with water, transport water via an elaborate shuttle system, or return to get his family? Adding to the confusion rather than clearing it up, Roeg has told interviewers that there is a possibility that the Newton of the film is no spaceman at all, but a reclusive Howard Hughes type who hallucinates what it would be like if he came from a waterless planet to earth. (The building of the spaceship is certainly the next step for the man who built The Spruce Goose, the world's largest plane. That project also failed.) True, many shots in the film, including those of Newton's thirsty family on his barren planet and that of the American pioneers who spot Newton's limo through what seems to be a time warp, could be visions of a hallucinating genius. But we can't so easily dismiss the scene in which Newton reverts to his alien form to jolt Mary-Lou into seeking a more suitable lover. (Just as civilized white teen-ager Jenny Agutter rejects aborigine David Gumpilil, who is alien to her, in Roeg's 1971 masterpiece Walkabout, Mary-Lou finds she can't make love to Newton when he is in his alien form.) This sequence proves to my satisfaction that Newton is not from our planet. Unfortunately, Roeg neglects its other purpose: in the book, when Newton looked at his Anthean form in the mirror, "his own body stared back at him but he could not recognize it as his own." This moment is pivotal because it is when Newton should realize, and be terrified as a result, that in his mind he has indeed become an imitation human being. (He is like those Indian tribesmen of the New World who forgot their own languages after explorers took them for lengthy visits to Europe.)
As in other Nicolas Roeg films -- Walkabout, Performance (1970), Don't Look Now (1973), Bad Timing (1980), eureka! (1983) -- we have a character who finds himself in a completely strange environment/situation. (By casting singers like Mick Jagger, Art Garfunkel, and David Bowie, Roeg figured their discomfort from moving to stage to the screen would transfer to their characters.) The cultural collision causes the character to grope for parts of himself that have been latent, so that he might survive. As a result, he is able to formulate a more accurate self- definition. Invariably, the character learns truths about himself that cause disillusionment and disappointment. For instance, the civilized girl in Walkabout becomes scared when her sexual instincts are revealed; and the macho gangster Chas (James Fox) in Performance is unhappy to learn that he has homosexual tendencies. Like Swift's Gulliver in the land of the tiny Lilliputians, Newton, though kindly, thinks the intellectually inferior earthlings to be no more than a race of chimpanzees, or (as he states in the book) insects. He is sure that after studying them for fifteen years on television he knows all about them. But, he discovers, "the strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell anything." As time passes he finds himself being vacuumed into this human race instead of remaining above it, and becoming one of the "frightened, self-pitying hedonists." As Tevis notes, Newton realizes that television perpetuates the "fantastic lie that America [is] a nation of God-fearing small towns, efficient cities, healthy farmers, kindly doctors, bemused housewives, philantropic millionaires," and he discovers "an aspect of strong and comfortable and hedonistic and unthinking humanity that his fifteen years of television watching had left him unaware of." Even living in near seclusion, Newton becomes infected by the earthlings he feels superior to. Of course, one who suffers from an open wound called loneliness is not immune.
Farnsworth, who is a homosexual in the film, Bryce, who is divorced (he is a widower in the book), and Mary-Lou, who is an insignificant, unattached New Mexican hotel maid, are naturally attracted to Newton, another outsider. He gives meaning to their dreary lives. Lawyer Farnsworth ("I got a brand new life") can enjoy taking on the big boys: Polaroid, Du Pont, IBM. Teacher Bryce, who had frittered his life away by making it with coeds, can now satisfy his scientific curiosity by doing applied research in exciting, unexplored areas. A one-time nurse and the type who brings home birds with broken wings, Mary-Lou, who's thrilled "to be part of a story," has found the perfect lover to mother: someone who faints, has a bloody nose, and vomits within the first minute of their acquiantance. Unfortunately, none of Newton's three friends can provide him with stimulation. While waiting for his ship to be constructed, he begins to see life as they once did, as being without meaning, without purpose. (Unlike Mary-Lou, he doesn't believe in God.) Human pressures he doesn't comprehend build up within him, and as Tevis writes, "he, the Anthean, a superior being from a superior race, was losing control, becoming a degenerate, a drunkard, a lost and foolish creature, a renegade, and, possibly, a traitor to his own." A man in exile, a man without an island, he loses himself in sex with Mary-Lou (their relationship is platonic in novel), booze, and television (he goes from one set to six to sixteen). His addiction to gin and television ("Stay out of my mind!" he screams at his blaring sets) is obviously symptomatic of his unhappiness and self-destructive nature. In his life with Mary-Lou, which starts out as romantic as Gary Cooper's with Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon (1957), which they watch on TV, he becomes like the typical overburdened business executive. I belive that his domestication, as much as anything, leads to his drinking and guilty withdrawal -- after all, he has a real wife and family elsewhere. In the Roeg-photographed Petulia (1968), Shirley Knight bakes cookies in an attempt to win back ex-husband George C. Scott and Scott hurls them through the air, signifying he doesn't want to return to a dull, stifling marriage. Similarly, when Mary-Lou makes cookies for Newton, he knocks them in the air, signifying he can't stand being the stereotypical American husband caught in a deteriorating marriage.
Another reason Newton is depressed is because he was unprepared for the ruthlessness he finds on earth. A nice guy, with no weapons, who doesn't dislike anyone -- just like Billy Budd, whom he sees hanged on his TV screen -- he cannot combat those powerful forces (capitalist leaders, CIA, FBI) who fear he will put the world's greatest monopolies out of business. A sense of melancholy pervades: Mary-Lou (well played by quirky Candy Clark) laments the disappearance of America's trains; we hear nostalgic songs like "Try to Remember" and "Blue Bayou" on the soundtrack; we see those enterprising American pioneers embarking on building America. The impression we get is that Newton had come to earth too late, when the desensitized people of the nuclear age have forgotten their ancestors' pioneering spirit and have settled for creature comforts like television, and have become, as a result of living in a capitalist world, "Liars! Chauvinists! And Fools!" It is a world that the Newton of the novel fears bringing Atheans to because he worries they will be corrupted, as he has been; fittingly the American landscape Roeg shows us is at once beautiful and uninviting.
Peter O'Toole was set to be Newton at one time, but rock music idol David Bowie makes a better choice. Bowie, who would be the male lead in Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), is fine playing pained, passive characters. As Newton he gives an appropriately subdued, sympathetic performance. With his orange hair, great height, and anemic look, Bowie does indeed seem like an alien. His birdlike features actually contribute to our empathy for Newton, who, unlike the muscular Atlas, must bear the weight of his world on shoulders that are brittle. We know what Newton must be feeling when on the soundtrack Eddy Arnold sings "Make the World Go Away (and Take It Off My Shoulders)": Newton feels enormous guilt that he can't carry out his mission, but his burden is too great; he doesn't have a chance because on earth it is the strong, unfortunately, who survive.
Copyright © 1983 Danny Peary.