Take Two on the Movies:

​Fish Out of Water: The Man Who Fell to Earth

by Daniel M. Kimmel

Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is sometimes cited for its elliptical storytelling and the difficulty viewers have in figuring out what it all means. The film is an acknowledged masterpiece, worthy of repeated viewings and deep analysis, but narratively it seems relatively straightforward and unambiguous compared to a very different science-fiction movie, Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

The 1976 movie, coming out eight years after “2001,” came too early for the Hollywood’s science fiction revival the following year with the blockbuster successes of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” For audiences at the time of release, what probably caught their attention was that it offered the acting debut of rock star David Bowie. Bowie was not the first performer considered for the role. According to the movie website IMDb.com, Robert Redford, Peter O’Toole, and even author Michael Crichton were bandied about for the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, the part eventually claimed by Bowie.

Adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, the movie tells the story of the mysterious Newton, who arrives on Earth from an unnamed planet. Casting Bowie as an alien was perfect timing. As a musician Bowie was a unique talent who kept reinventing himself throughout his career. At the time he was known for such albums as “Space Oddity,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” and “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” He might as well have been from another planet.

He plays Newton as a noble yet tragic figure. As we come to learn, Newton has left his wife and children behind on their arid world hoping to figure out a way to bring them water. From television signals he has learned of Earth, which strikes him as a planet that is mostly ocean. His initial goal is to be able to raise enough money to build a spacecraft to return to his planet. He does this by introducing new technology to Earth for which he controls the patents. It makes him very rich, allowing him to build his ship.

However, the story is not told in a straightforward manner. We discover his background slowly, and it never is explained how he got to Earth in the first place. Then there are three other principal characters in the story, each of whom become important to Newton in different ways. Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) is the business operative put in charge of Newton’s World Enterprises Corporation. Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) is a waitress who becomes Newton’s love interest for reasons that became obvious when Clark revealed, in a 2016 interview in Variety, that she also played his wife in the flashback scenes on his home planet. 

The third character takes a while to connect with Newton. When we first meet Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), he’s a divorced college professor whose chief concern seems to be acrobatic bedroom encounters with coeds in his classes. When he’s brought in to work on Newton’s space project, the two make an awkward connection.

Filmgoers found the story hard to follow, in part because Roeg jumps around in time without explanation, so we have to look for signs of the characters aging to realize that time has passed. It didn’t help that the original American release cut some twenty minutes from the film, and even moved around some scenes. (The version available on DVD via Criterion restores the original director’s cut.) 

Viewed today, a number of things stand out as being especially forward looking. Start with how an individual introducing high tech devices can become wealthy while also being a disruptive force. From Bill Gates to Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, this is a concept that needs no explanation today. When we hear government agents talking about taking action against Newton because society can only absorb so much innovation at one time, it seems to foretell our current debates over how we’ve been impacted by social media, smart phones, online commerce, and the like.

Less important to the plot, but worth noting, is that Newton’s company seems environmentally conscious. It offers the opportunity to recycle such devices as cameras when improved upgrades are released. Unsaid but perhaps implied is the idea that such notions were not heeded on Newton’s home planet which may be why it has turned into the barren wasteland we see.

Equally worth noting is the film’s attitude toward sexual/personal relationships. Newton has several sex scenes with Mary-Lou which, at one level, remind us that moviemakers were a lot less uptight in the ‘70s than they are today. The casual nudity (mostly female, to be sure, but not entirely) shows characters who are uninhibited in expressing themselves physically. Late in the film Newton and Mary-Lou reconnect and there’s an extended sequence involving sex and a gun shooting blanks. They take liberties with how dangerous even blanks can be, but it ties into Newton’s overall story arc of being taken in and ultimately beaten down by western culture. After all, what could be more American than sex and guns?  (This particular scene was among the footage restored after being cut for the 1976 release.)

This gets us to what’s at the core of the movie. Newton is motivated to save his planet, and his family in particular, but isn’t looking for charity. He comes to Earth bringing gifts of advanced technology, looking to earn what he needs to carry forth his own project. This ought to be admirable. Yet instead, what happens is that he is perceived as a threat to the powers that be. His new tech is too good, it’s too disruptive. Actions are taken to decapitate World Enterprises. In a sequence that is both darkly comic and deeply disturbing, Farnsworth is brutally murdered. What we know of his life is that he is intelligent, cultured (in an ironic touch he enjoys listening to the classical suite “The Planets”) and – quietly but assertively in 1976 – he is in a committed gay relationship. Like Newton, his choices are too disruptive to the status quo.

As for Newton himself, he’s too rich to be killed or incarcerated so, instead, he is brutally and tragically neutralized. He is forced to undergo medical treatments that ignore his needs and desires, while being allowed to self-medicate through alcohol as a way of keeping him passive and docile. Mary-Lou – now connected to Bryce – gets to visit Newton and seems to want to help him, yet, is there to try to convince him to give in and cooperate with the authorities.

By film’s end, he is a broken man. His plans have been for naught: his project destroyed, his family apparently dead, and actions taken to keep him trapped in his human form. Having arrived on Earth both seeking and offering help, he has “fallen” to such an extent that he drinks non-stop as a way to escape the pain of his life. In the film’s final moments, a waiter comes over after he’s knocked over a glass and suggests that perhaps he has had enough. Bryce, seated with him, agrees that indeed he seems to have had enough. Newton’s response is to acquiesce, nodding his head in defeat as the credits roll.

“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is not an easy film to navigate, but it is not an impossible one. It is a critique of our society, one where the powers that be feel the need to destroy or, at least, neutralize those things it cannot control. Newton is a threat not because he’s a successful entrepreneur, but because he’s motivated by something other than simply amassing wealth and power. His desire to save and be reunited with his family is what makes him recognizably human and, at the same time, renders him utterly alien to the authorities.

The film has been labeled a “cult film,” a mixed blessing at best. Yes, it is a film that has fervent fans, yet is not trying to push other viewers away. While the 1987 TV movie adaptation of Tevis’s novel may be largely unknown, a 2015 musical version entitled “Lazarus” was staged in New York and London before sold out audiences.  What’s interesting about the production, which starred Michael C. Hall, is that it was co-written by Bowie. Apparently even after having done a number of other films, it was his first one, he couldn’t get out of his head.

Director Roeg (“Walkabout,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Witches”) was an artist, even if his films didn’t quite reach the heights of Stanley Kubrick. Yet with “The Man Who Fell to Earth” he achieved a film that is maddening and convoluted and, yet in the end, a tale worth examining. 

About the author: Daniel M. Kimmel is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award, given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He was a finalist for a Hugo Award for Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies and for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel for Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide. In addition to short stories, he is the author of Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel and Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel M. Kimmel