British Director Nicolas Roeg’s works, which include Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, are often meandering and esoteric, movies that are difficult to unravel and demand repeat viewings. The Man who Fell to Earth, his 1976 adaptation of author Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, is no exception. It’s difficult to watch, although not in the same way a film like, say, Sex in the City 2, is. It requires the viewer’s undivided attention, and, even then, it’s likely that many will be left scratching their heads (I’ll admit to being one of those people). Maybe though, The Man who Fell to Earth isn’t meant to be immediately understood. Instead of giving to the audience, like so many summer blockbusters, it asks of them, and its effectiveness as a film is reliant on the amount of thought dedicated to interpreting it.
David Bowie plays a humanoid alien who comes to Earth seeking water for his drought-stricken planet. Once arrived, he begins to build a corporate empire, using the advanced technology of his own world to develop and patent hundreds of new inventions. With the money amassed by his business venture, he, under the pseudonym Thomas Jerome Newton, begins construction on a spaceship, intending to bring water to his family and his own world. Shortly after his success as a business man, he meets Mary-Lou, a young, simple girl working as a maid at a hotel. They eventually marry, but Newton’s alien origins cause the relationship to sour.
Newton comes to Earth with a mission, a sole desire to ensure the survival of his race. While his planet dies, the alien begins as quickly as he can to construct the ship that will bring him back home. Roeg brilliantly employs editing in order to both trivialize and emphasize the importance of time. There is never any indication when, or how much, time has passed. Frequently, five or ten years will go by between scenes with little or no indication. Newton himself never ages, so these quick, subtle jumps simply represent the insignificance of time to him. It passes, and he works towards his goal, and at first, the only thing that matters is water. But as the film progresses, Bowie’s quest is sidetracked by gin and the encroachment of his own developing humanity. The film returns to Newton’s desert planet to reveal the plight of the family he’s left behind and to remind the viewer that time, which passes so quickly, is running out. Perhaps the “temporal” cuts also serve to imply that Bowie’s alien has simply lost track of his goal, of who he truly is.
Thomas’ disguise is just that: a disguise. It allows him to “go through the motions,” maintain the illusion of humanity. He is like the television programs he becomes so enraptured with: “The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t *tell* you everything,” Newton says. “It *shows* you everything about life for nothing, but the true mysteries remain.” He is, for all intents and purposes, only the image of a man. On an emotional level, on the level which gives meaning to human existence, he is isolated, incapable of hatred, as he tells Mary-Lou after he reveals his true form to her, and, as is implied later during one of his last meetings with his former wife, incapable of love. “I don’t love you, anymore,” Mary-Lou whispers. “I don’t love you,” replies Thomas. There is no adverb indicating past affection. His is a statement which encompasses all time, past, present, and future. For Thomas, there is, supposedly, only pretense. Yet changes occur in his behavior throughout the movie, changes which lead him down a precarious road, one which he seems unable to stray from. The switch from water as his preferred drink of choice, to liquor, is perhaps the first and best indication that he is losing his identity. This culminates in a bizarre sex scene between himself and Mary-Lou, one which is so primal, yet so dispassionate – the clash of two separate beings, struggling for dominance.
Fascinating Fact: Nicolas Roeg initially wanted author Michael Crichton, who was 6’10”, to play Thomas Jerome Newton.
Recommended Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Don’t Look Now