The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
By: Julian on September 1, 2009  | 
Universal (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2:35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 133 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Starring: David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn, Buck Henry
Screenplay: Paul Mayersberg
Country: UK
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David Bowie's first film role since his music career started in earnest, The Man Who Fell to Earth is an incredibly weird movie, highly influenced by its star's drug addledness and its director's choppy visual style.

Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid alien who lands on Earth searching for water to sustain his drought-plagued planet. Newton has brought with him the far advanced technology of his home planet, with the intention of patenting the inventions and generating enough cash to construct a spaceship that will transport water. He has some preliminary meetings with a patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), who tells him that his inventions are worth around $300,000,000 – "is that all?!" Newton incredulously replies, "I need more!"

Newton rises to become the head of a multinational conglomerate under the mentorship of Farnsworth. His dealings also bring him into contact with Nathan Bryce, a fuel technician played by Rip Torn, and they head down to New Mexico on a business trip. On this trip, Newton becomes acquainted with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), the hotel maid. She introduces the alien to alcohol, to which he is violently sick when first imbibing it, and TV. He commences a relationship with Mary-Lou and she then exposes Newton to human love and sex, and he eventually reveals his alien form to her. She's at first disgusted, but then accepting - although as Newton's addiction to booze and television takes over his life he gradually becomes more and more unbearable and antisocial, eventually cutting Mary-Lou out completely.

On a professional front, Newton's life crumbles in an instant – government operatives seize his spaceship while it's being constructed and Farnsworth and Bryce are captured. Newton is left at the mercy of government scientists, who commence a series of tests on him, rendering him incapable of returning to alien form.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is essentially a tragic character study, and the science-fiction elements could have easily been snipped to present a young bloke, a savant, rising the corporate ladder, then being chewed up and spat out. I've never been a big fan of science-fiction, so the ambiguity of The Man Who Fell to Earth was something that I felt worked in its favour. It also makes The Man Who Fell to Earth a highly unconventional sci-fi flick. With that said, the fantasy imagery here, especially Newton's reveal, a subtle display unconcerned with snazzy special effects, is quite out-there, and is really well-executed. The Man Who Fell to Earth is also a good indicator that Bowie could actually act, though there can be little doubt that his reality as a spacey drugged alien made his portrayal of a spacey drunken alien pretty on the money.

It was at this period too that Bowie was most creative musically, and certainly at his most unusual, fresh off Young Americans (I think it's one of his best records, even though it seems universally hated) and in the process of recording what would be his magnum opus Station to Station, its odd album sleeve a still from this film.

If the reports regarding the recording and subsequent tour connected with Station to Station are anything to go by (that album was released about six weeks before The Man Who Fell to Earth premiered in London, with the tour ending in May '76), then Bowie was not in a very good state of mind while filming this, wracked with a crippling cocaine addiction that almost cost him his life on a number of occasions, both by way of overdosing and shocking weight loss (by his own admission, he lived on "red peppers, cocaine and milk"). Before filming stated, Roeg warned his star that he would "adopt Newton's persona", and he did: Thomas Newton almost certainly formed the basis of Bowie's "Thin White Duke", the character that took over from the androgynous Ziggy/Aladdin Sane days and was a buttoned-down, coked-up, cold, clinical and highly refined funk performer. It was Bowie's musical heyday, even if he was a profoundly unwell man, though his drug addiction seems to work to his character and The Man Who Fell to Earth's benefit.

According to screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, he and Roeg instantly pigeonholed Bowie into the role of Thomas Newton after seeing the BBC documentary Cracked Actor, which charted the singer's "Diamond Dogs" tour in 1974. Bowie, utterly wasted on cocaine by that point, cut a pathetically edgy, emaciated figure in the doco – to Newton's character, Mayersberg called it "a perfect match". During filming, Mayersberg recalls stories of Bowie being admitted to hospital with food poisoning after finding a "swirling gold liquid mess" in his milk, and anecdotal rumours regarding the freezing and storage of urine, semen and the actor spouting some pretty twisted garble about witches, demonic possession and Jimmy Page. But Mayersberg remembers Bowie primarily for his supreme professionalism and commitment to the role, later saying, "[Bowie] would agree that [the role required very little true acting]. He has said that since. To me."

Nicolas Roeg does a terrific job, fresh off his critically acclaimed Don't Look Now and his contribution to another rock star-starring vehicle, Rubber Lips Jagger's Performance. He employs the cut-up technique used especially in Performance, which makes The Man Who Fell to Earth a far more abstract, detached picture than it could have been. It's hard to know if this is a good thing, and really depends on your tolerance for it; I felt that it really helped Roeg capture the unstable, tense mood. The cinematography, done by Anthony Richmond (Don't Look Now, Sympathy for the Devil and a bunch of pretty disposable American comedies in the noughties) is just superb. The movie is shot so beautifully and there are some terrific set-pieces – a suited Bowie paranoidly inspecting his newly-constructed spaceship (Station to Station's cover) that sits in a country field among the most enduring.

Mayersberg, who has done virtually nothing since The Man Who Fell to Earth, based his screenplay on Walter Tevis's 1963 novel. The book and this film were in turn the basis for a 1987 TV show that only got to pilot stage, and an upcoming remake, due out later this year. Interestingly, a Broadway musical is also in production.

From a man not too keen on science-fiction, I wholeheartedly recommend The Man Who Fell to Earth. It can be viewed either as a sci-fi flick or just simply a fish-out-of-water movie, and it has enough super-weird imagery, gratuitous sex scenes and Bowie to keep the cult crowd very happy. My sole complaint is the length of the third act, most of which is pretty superfluous and could have been truncated to half its duration.
The picture is presented in 2:35:1, with 16:9 enhancement. I don't have any complaints about it – it looks really good.
One English audio track in Dolby 2.0. It does the job. Bowie had done up a few ambient tunes for the soundtrack of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but they were rejected by Roeg and the studio, who favoured John Phillips's more conventional sound.
Extra Features
It's a relatively old disc, and the features on it are scant – a theatrical trailer, 25-minute making of (with no Bowie) and a campaign brochure available as a DVD ROM feature.

An excellent release has been done for Region 1 by Criterion, which has a host of features including a Roeg/Bowie/Henry audio commentary and an assortment of interviews. For fans of the film, it's well worth the money.
The Verdict
A very interesting, highly novel and intelligent sci-fi flick, uniquely approached by Roeg and impeccably led by Bowie. There's a good twenty minutes towards the end that could've been snipped, but otherwise highly recommended.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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