Saturday 18 April 2009

Sci-Fi Spotlight #3: The Man Who Fell To Earth

This was a strange one. I should have suspected that science fiction from Nic Roeg would not be anything I could anticipate, and sure enough I’m still struggling to decide what to make of The Man Who Fell To Earth. At the simplest level, it shows an odd-looking man named Newton (David Bowie) appearing in small town America - literally falling from the sky - and swiftly becoming one of the most powerful businessmen in the country. He is a cold, reclusive type, and we eventually discover that he is an alien, come to earth as his planet has run out of water. We see brief shots of his alien family dying back home, but Newton becomes distracted by the money and entertainment available to him on earth, and never returns home.

Roeg doesn’t so much tell this story as make you work to tell the story yourself. Large chunks of time are skipped over, and you have to fill in what happens inbetween with your imagination. So we see Newton arrive on earth with nothing, and in only a few moments of screen time we are several years down the line and he’s running World Enterprise, a massive company that is leading the field in American research and technology. This initially suggests that he has unearthly intelligence or resources, but if this is the case it is never made explicit, and doesn’t seem to feature as the story progresses and Newton is ultimately overcome by the world.

Bowie’s performance is excellent, impenetrable and otherworldly. His pale skin and dyed red hair, combined with his hollow stare, make him seem more like an alien in human shape than when his character sheds the human disguise and is revealed in his ‘real’, make-up heavy form. Throughout the film, apart from a couple of scenes, he remains without emotion, and his thoughts and desires are similarly obscured. If there is reason or purpose in his actions then Roeg is not interested in discovering it.

What, then, is Roeg interested in showing or discovering in The Man Who Fell To Earth? He creates a lot of fascinating visuals, but there isn’t a lot of sense behind them; while the film certainly seems to have artistic intentions, watching it is something of an empty experience. It also feels very dated, being full of gratuitous nudity and extended sex scenes that may have been provocative in the 70s but now beg the question ‘why?’ Similarly, Roeg plays with the timeline of the film as if to challenge conventional storytelling techniques, but to no discernible purpose.

So roll on Alphaville, I say. Perhaps I can make more sense of Jean-Luc Godard. Errr…


  1. "Man..." has become like an old friend to me, but one i had a hard time getting to know, at first.

    i now finally own an uncut and remastered copy on DVD, and just saw it this evening; it is amazing.

    the story doesn't take too much work to figure out, as long as the viewer can think on his feet while the story moves forward; Roeg leaves us enough clues to piece certain things together, but also intentionally left a few details out.

    for instance, it doesn't seem too important to know about the manner of T.J.'s arrival as much as it is to know he was observed by the Feds as soon as he was able to walk among us.

    another example is when T.J. and Mary-Lou first arrive in New Mexico, there is a sequence where he looks out at the verdant land and presently sees inhabitants who used to live there from the past; so, from this, we can gather that T.J. has senses actual impressions from the past.

    we can also gather that he is telepathic to some degree, and can communicate to other minds without being physically present, as in the case of him and Dr. Bryce.

    these are themes, of course, relevant and common in sci-fi, so it may take a little getting used to if the viewer isn't already well-versed.

    now, when you say there is "no discernable purpose" for "playing with the timeline", the story, is in fact, linear and uses film techniques (dreams, visions, actual memories) to keep the story moving forward and not boring.

    to piece fragments of events and characterization into a whole from in your mind is part of the fun of the film, and the bulk of the film that plays out in real time (i think) is also worth watching.

    i didn't feel empty watching the film at any point, even the sex scenes; i mean, i felt so sad for Newton that he should have a few moments of physical gratification with an earth woman who genuinely loves him, and he does.

    and Bowie, well, i feel his performance was layered and that there was always something emotional brewing underneath his seemingly cold, hollow stare... unless it seemed to me he felt numb. i am, however, biased about David Bowie as he is my favorite musician.

    i notice you didn't talk about the underlying morality of the film, as many reviewers of this film don't, and that is that many of the characters show themselves to be totally depraved; sadly, we see no real resolution for lost souls but only a few brief moments spent singing hymns in church or celebrating Christmas...

    curiously, and this only came to me right now, water is also a reference to the Holy Spirit; Earth has plenty of water, but almost everyone in the story regularly drinks alcohol.

    another curious component to the story is how Newton is first psychically linked to Bryce when Newton is dining, watching the noh play and Bryce beds two young girls at the same time; also an obscure reference and connection between sex and death, but i haven't found a reviewer yet who caught that.

    well, i have to say i enjoy "Man..." almost as much as i enjoy "C'era una volta il West (1968)", but i'll give the film a few more years and a few more viewings.

    i give it a 2/2.

    hope i didn't stink up your review.

    i don't know, if "Man..." isn't your cup of tea, try John Boorman's "Zardoz"; coincidentally, another religious allegory with sci-fi elements.

  2. in thinking over the film again (after i saw the uncut version this past weekend), a few more thoughts occurred to me:

    Bowie's manner shifts a lot in character; With Mary-Lou, he alternately seems both compassionate and contemptuous, while with Nathan he seems both transparent and cryptic.

    one reviewer thought Bowie gave a largely "stoic" performance, but i stick by what i said earlier (that it was layered and subtly diverse).

    another reviewer, i think this one worked for Playboy magazine, called the film "hallucinatory"...


    i mean, most of the images we see inside Newton's mind are usually recognizable, but we need to wrestle with their connection to the story to see how they pan out.

    there are a few images in the film that still puzzle me, the visions Newton has of wet bodies, floating, flying, swimming? shooting past... i'm not sure if these bodies are supposed to be the spirits of dead Antheans (the planet Anthea, where he came from, as mentioned in the book), some grim, haunting reminder of guilt and failure he feels as he further dooms his home planet? (the only visual connection in the story i can make is when Farnsworth and his lover are killed and their silhouetted bodies fall to the ground). in one of these scenes that feature the images of the flying bodies, Mary-Lou asks Newton what he sees when he drinks (alcohol) and he says he sees bodies of women and men as she soon after chuckles (a faintly humorous moment in the film that also nurses a small chill); neither Roeg nor Newton really spell everything out, though, and leave us with lingering ambiguities.

    there is a really honest moment in the film (one of my favorites) when Newton shows Bryce the control room for his spaceship, and Nathan reasonably asks him if the ship is actually a weapon (this is also the same scene when Bryce asks Newton if he is a Lithuanian, another little joke in the film); i read that this scene was a little difficult to shoot as Bowie had no sleep the previous night (composing music for what was to be part of the soundtrack for the movie) and Rip Torn was really edgy. the producers (Si Litvinoff) consequently had to calm one actor down and pep the other one up.

    for me, this film is like a spider's web to a fly; sweet, sour, fragrant, sticky and intricate, and its messages and images linger and ache long after.

  3. Hey Astronomius, thanks for all your comments, really interesting stuff. Do you have a movie reviewing blog or stuff anywhere that I could read?

  4. i'm a moderator on two sites (one is a Disney fan site, believe it or not) and am in the process of revising my own site again:

    the sites i moderate on are:
    // and

    // Secret_Chamber/index.php?

    and you'd have to register on these sites to read my stuff.

    the Disney blog address changes and i don't know if it's because i set Disney off, because their shows and stars are sometimes stinky and i'm not afraid to say so, lol.

    i'd go the extra mile to heckle a director or production company if i thought it might help produce a better product, even if it means hearing "you'll never work in this town again!", lol; i don't do this because i'm just an as**ole, i do this because i care about what i enjoy.

    to tell you the truth, i started out being a comic book fan than a movie fan, but i don't go, haven't gone to school to study film; i was an Art major in school, with a minor in English Lit.

    i'd been reviewing my favorite movies for quite some time, but it was only a few years back when i got the opp to write on a Disney blog.

    i'm big on reading, too; i have complete and semi-complete collections of Ray Bradbury, Thomas Disch, Harlan Ellison (my parents and i met him a few times), Richard Matheson and Edgar Allen Poe. i'd like to say i'm a fan of writer Roald Dahl, but his work is a little dry for me, and i'd someday like to crack open works by Charles Dickens; i feel like a bit of an idiot for not having done so sooner.

    Shakespeare? forget about it, his works are amazing, but sometimes a little inaccessible; i really have to work at understanding the vernacular he used.

    whatever i learned about story structure, character development, environment and mood i learned from ^ these guys first.

    my top 5 favorite movies are:

    Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time In The West" or "C'era una volta il West" (1968),

    Norman Jewison's "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973),

    Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986),

    Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008), and now,

    Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell To Earth" (1976).

    my next five are:

    Richard Fleischer's "Soylent Green" (1973),

    Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975),

    John Carpenter's "Starman" (1984),

    Mike Nichols' "Wolf" (1997), and most recently,

    J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" (2009).

    you know, i gotta be able to watch them repeatedly and still get hot for them.

    honorable mention goes to Orson Welles' "Touch Of Evil" (1958), Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", "John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978), and Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960).

    two movies i'd really like to see is Roman Polanski's "Oliver Twist" (1985) and a movie i'd like to really love (but can't quite) is Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" (1995).

    you know, some of these are classics, some of these are just fun films, but i'm not really a film snob (in the sense i just watch classics).

    five of my favorite "stinkers" of all time are Jack Arnold's "Tarantula" (1955), Richard Sarafian's "Vanishing Point" (1971), Michael Campus' "Z.P.G." (1972), Bob Clark's "Deathdream" (or "Dead of Night")(1974) and George Miller's "The Road Warrior" (or, "Mad Max II") (1981).

    i think "Vanishing Point" is just getting its due these days, but it took a while, and the excitement around "Road Warrior" died way down.

    honestly, i'd be a lousy film critic just watching one movie after the other trying to find diamonds in the rough and then hating life; no, what i'm more interested in doing is promoting films i love and just poring into them.

    i'm a firm believer that good books don't usually translate well onto film, but there are always exceptions; a great example of the exception is both versions of Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris" by Tarkovsky and Soderbergh. i also like Judith Guest's "Ordinary People" by Robert Redford, Paddy Chayefsky's "Altered States" by Ken Russell and Peter Benchley's "Jaws" by Steven Spielberg.


  5. by the way, there is an important point i thought i should mention after having written all that;

    i think the best response to Art comes from a well-rounded perspective that brings a lot more to the table than an understanding of one use of medium.

    much of my view of Art comes from studying classic and modern literature, poetry, The Bible, comic books, paintings, television, modern music and films; i know, after reading much criticism of these mediums, that the best expressions come from artists whose experience and skill set came from studying and using many mediums proficiently.

    and much of my worldview comes from my experiences with nature, people, religions, The Bible and my own internal trappings that i wrestle with and foist on others (sometimes humorously, other times critically).

    i see that my view suffers a bit from not having seriously studied mathematics and the sciences, though.

    i understand cinema has its own "language", yet borrows from and examines other mediums, but i find that the best films are made from a more personal and intelligent vision (much less derivative) and a well-informed use of the medium itself.

    i also know, though, that film students are still discerning enough to know the differences between high Art and junk and i look for solid opportunities to exchange with them.

    i'm not really interested in making movies myself, though; i'm a writer who also paints, draws and sculpts, and i currently clean buildings and move furniture for a living...

    a reminder to me that i have to get ready for work soon, lol.

  6. here's a link to the address of the blog i used to be on:

    it's some of my best writing and criticism, but i could always improve my grammer.

    and i never made it in to work today.


  7. hmmm, enough about me, on now with the review:

    i thought a little bit more about some of the puzzling visual sequences in the film this week, and it occurred to me (after reading producer Si Litvinoff's recollection of how "Man..." was cast and filmed) that he's a big fan of Bowie (as am i).

    check out the lyrics to Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" and see how they might correspond to the film:

    "I'm an alligator, I'm a mama-papa calling for you.
    I'm the space invader, I'll be a rock 'n' rollin' bitch for you.
    Keep your mouth shut,
    you're squawking like a pink monkey bird
    And I'm busting up my brains for the words

    Keep your 'lectric eye on me babe
    Put your ray gun to my head
    Press your space face close to mine, love

    Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah!

    Don't fake it baby, lay the real thing on me,
    The church of man, love
    Is such a holy place to be,
    Make me baby, make me know you really care

    Make me jump into the air

    Keep your 'lectric eye on me babe
    Put your ray gun to my head
    Press your space face close to mine, love
    Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah!

    Freak out, far out, in out"

    "I'm a mama-papa..." - - it turns out that "Papa" John Phillips (of "The Mamas and The Papas") was a last minute replacement for music director of the film (a fall-out between Michael Deeley and Bowie sadly resulted in Bowie's deposition as the film's original music director).

    "Keep your mouth shut, you're squawking like a pink monkey bird..." - - of course, Candy Clark's incessant bantering and screaming in character as Mary-Lou.

    "Put your ray gun to my head,
    Press your space face close to mine, love..." - - a possible reference to the scene where Thomas and Mary-Lou make love, firing blanks from a real revolver at one another.

    also, the idea of firing blanks at one another - - "Don't fake it baby, lay the real thing on me...".

    "The church of man, love,
    Is such a holy place to be..." - - a possible reference to the scene where Mary-Lou takes Thomas to church with her.

    "Make me baby, make me know you really care..." - - a possible reference to Thomas' and Mary-Lou's relationship; they show each other obvious intimacy and trust, but they always struggle with an innate disconnection from one another.

    the line "Make me jump into the air..." reminds me of the floating, sailing bodies in the air from Thomas' vision, but there is a more appropriate possible reference in a flashback scene where Newton is seen reversing his descent into the water by traveling back into the air.

    so, perhaps there might be a hidden subtext to the film, where the lyrics to "Moonage Daydream" (written in 1972-'73?) were acted out in the film (released in 1976)...

    i found another obscure reference that could be read into the film, and that is the alien's actual appearance and presence (after he disrobes and removes his facade) - - he vaguely reminds me of Marvel Comics' "Silver Surfer"; you know, except for having cat-eyes, he could be a dead ringer for Norrin Radd (or J'onn J'ones, the Martian Manhunter).

    there is also a scene, halfway through the film, where Nathan Bryce is flown in to meet Thomas Newton at his New Mexico home, but actually first meet on a bridge in a telepathic greeting sent from Newton himself; something like this was done much earlier in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles...

    in fact, the main themes of Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" can also be found in "The Man Who Fell To Earth": a cautionary war tale, mankind abusing technology, mankind alienating itself and sinking further into depravity...

    all these references can be (perhaps idiotically) read into the film (and the original novel), but the film is so cleverly ambiguous that only words from the production crew could confirm what would be true of them.

    idiotic or not, i have a good time still raking all this stuff over from the film.


  8. here's another possible reference to "Moonage Daydream", "I'm an alligator...": a sexual predator, dangerous, unpredictable, fast-moving, sheds skin - - Newton sheds his "skin" in the film.