THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. A Masterpiece of Science Fiction Cinema
The Man Who Fell to Earth – an adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel with the iconic role of David Bowie – is a film filled with hallucinatory, surreal images that leave a deep impression as much as the gripping story of the rise and fall of an alien visitor.
Thomas Jerome Newton looks otherworldly at first glance: a gaunt figure, pale complexion, orange hair, and piercing multicolored eyes. He presents himself as an Englishman but is, in fact, a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to save his home planet from a catastrophic drought. Using advanced extraterrestrial technology to create groundbreaking inventions, Newton leads the World Enterprises corporation, amassing a massive fortune. The visitor’s true goal is to construct a spacecraft and return to his native planet with a supply of water. However, Newton falls into the trappings of Earthly life: he becomes entangled in a complicated romance with the kind-hearted Mary Lou and succumbs to alcohol and television addiction. Meanwhile, one of Newton’s close associates, Dr. Nathan Bryce, begins to suspect that his employer is not who he appears to be. Mysterious figures from the government and rival companies also take an interest in him. Ultimately, Newton falls victim to betrayal.
The Man Who Fell to Earth was Nicolas Roeg’s third solo directorial effort. He began his career as a cinematographer and later directed Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout (1971), and Don’t Look Now (1973). Paul Mayersberg’s script was based on Walter Tevis’s science fiction novel from 1963, and while Roeg embraced formal experimentation (creative editing, surreal sequences, disrupted chronology, etc.), he remained faithful to the writer’s traditional prose. Casting David Bowie in the lead role turned out to be a perfect choice – his androgynous appearance and restrained demeanor suited the character of the delicate extraterrestrial perfectly. Bowie’s stunning performance proved that he was as talented an actor as he was a singer (initially, Roeg considered Peter O’Toole or Michael Crichton for the role; Bowie was chosen based on his involvement in Alan Yentob’s documentary Cracked Actor). The other roles, such as Mary Lou portrayed by Candy Clark and Dr. Bryce played by Rip Torn, were equally outstanding.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the most magnificent, original, and moving science fiction films in the genre’s history, rarely venturing into the realm of cheap rubber monster and laser sword productions. Like Stanislaw Lem and every great artist, Walter Tevis – and by extension, Nicolas Roeg – used science fiction as a framework to explore entirely non-fantastic issues. The Man Who Fell to Earth is like science fiction in reverse: observed from Newton’s perspective – a hypersensitive being with above-average intellect – it is we, humans, who are the oddities. Our lonely planet, our culture of consumerism, our customs, and behaviors towards each other – all of it is strange. Roeg’s perspective as a British director presenting American culture from an outsider’s viewpoint (similar to Michelangelo Antonioni in Zabriskie Point, Werner Herzog in Stroszek, and Wim Wenders in Paris, Texas and The American Friend) seamlessly aligns with this outlook. It’s an unvarnished view of a world saturated with alcohol, sex, television, greed, and competition.
The strength of both Tevis’s book and Roeg’s film lies in their numerous possible interpretations. The writer openly admitted that his book was a “veiled autobiography”: “I’m a recovering alcoholic. My novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is about falling into alcoholism.” It is both an exploration of addiction and a metaphor for the artist’s fate among barbarians, an examination of existential loneliness, an anti-corporate diatribe, an ecological manifesto (the theme of drought plaguing Newton’s planet), and ultimately a Christian allegory of sin and downfall. It’s no accident that in one scene, Dr. Bryce admires Pieter Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Nor is it a coincidence that Thomas Jerome Newton shares his name with Isaac Newton – the British physicist who formulated the law of universal gravitation. Interestingly, the creators also somewhat predicted the character of a fabulously wealthy celebrity-entrepreneur, who, after achieving great success in international markets, becomes one of the leaders in a new space race. Comparisons to Elon Musk and Richard Branson come to mind.
David Bowie noted that The Man Who Fell to Earth is a subtle, very sad love story. The film must have resonated with him: frames from Roeg’s production appeared on the covers of two of Bowie’s albums, “Station To Station” (1976) and “Low” (1977), and he himself wrote an off-Broadway musical, Lazarus (2015), which depicted the further adventures of Newton. Tevis’s novel also received a second adaptation – a lamentable telefilm by Bobby Roth was made in 1987. In 2022, Showtime produced a series loosely connected to Roeg’s film. The Man Who Fell to Earth also resonates in the titular character of John Carpenter’s Starman, David in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, and the Woman in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, as well as in the works of Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, Panos Cosmatos, and Philip K. Dick’s novel “Valis.” It also mirrors our daily lives: Newton, consuming multiple programs at once, surrounded by laptops, smartphones, TVs, and billboards, voraciously consuming everything within sight until psycho-physical overload occurs.