The Man Who Fell to Earth
Director Nicolas Roeg’s film, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), starring rock star David Bowie, will mark its 35th anniversary with a two week run at Film Forum, beginning June 24. Film Forum will present a new 35mm print of the complete uncut director’s version. The movie was cut by 20 minutes for its initial American release.
In truth, this is the second article I have written about “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” The first was written years ago, when I wrote movie reviews for my high school newspaper. I remember my science teacher taking me to task for saying that “The Man Who Fell to Earth” was “well worth seeing.” He found it boring. Looking back, I should have expected more from a man of science and I reaffirm that my opinion, from my teenage years, still stands.
Yes, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” certainly has a narrative that is very challenging, to say the least. There are time warps, flashbacks and sequences where characters age while the main character stays the same age. Part of me wishes that Roeg had added a few lines of expositional dialogue here and there, maybe a title card or two, and possibly even a clarifying scene, or three. At the same time though I know that doing this would have detracted from the film’s mystery. What we are left with is a movie that is visually striking, a science fiction story that eschews all the usual science hardware, choosing instead to tell a story about people. Well, maybe “people” is not exactly the right word to use for the main character, Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie).
Newton is an alien who has come to Earth to bring water back to his parched planet. Specifically he wants to save his wife and children. Bowie, tall, thin, androgynous and with orange hair, represents letter perfect casting as an alien. Similarly, the excellent supporting cast includes Rip Torn, Candy Clark and Buck Henry as three key people Newton meets on Earth.
Roeg told interviewers that maybe Newton is not an alien at all. The director theorized that what we are seeing may actually be the hallucination of a reclusive Howard Hughes type, musing what it would be like if he came to Earth from a waterless planet. I will not discount this theory. After all, Newton’s plan to build a huge corporation, which would then finance and develop a space program that would, in turn, enable him to return to his planet, does seem very time consuming, considering that Newton’s family is in dire need of water.
Regardless of who Newton is, or is not, what we are shown is Amercian society and culture as seen through the eyes of an alien. Similarly, in Roeg’s film “Walkabout” (1971), the character played by Jenny Agutter (identified only as “Girl”), represents our civilization (I mean, people outside of our civilization do not go to movies). “Girl” is stranded in the Australian outback. There, she (and by proxy the audience) is the alien through whose eyes we see, and experience, the strange land she has entered. That will do for my analysis. In “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Roeg wants us all to be puzzle solvers, so I will not deprive others of the opportunity.
Incidentally, some years back Film Forum did present a restored, director’s cut of “Walkabout.” It is good to see this committed theatre continue to bring Roeg’s original vision of his work to light, now with this complete presentation of “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street, in New York.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” director Nicolas Roeg, 1976, Rialto Pictures, 140 minutes