Well, after starting things off with a screwball comedy and moving onto a solemn samurai flick, it looks like this Bucket List project is next taking a trip to the world of ponderous seventies sci-fi movies. And, like last week, we’re talking about a movie that I’m seeing for the first time. Although, it’s definitely a movie that’s been on my radar for quite some time. I probably heard about Nicolas Roeg’s the Man Who Fell to Earth back when I was in high school and became fascinated with the concept for cult movies and midnight movies, figuring that would be a good thing to base my personality around. And, the Man Who Fell to Earth was a pretty frequent presence on the various lists of “greatest cult movies” I found on the internet back in the day. I mean, a weirdo seventies sci-fi movie staring David Bowie as an alien? Yeah, that sounds exactly like the type of movie that people get stoned and watch at an indie movie theater on a Friday night. But, for whatever reason, I just never got around to actually seeing the movie before this, having it end up kind of perpetually on my ever-growing list of movies I’d get around to one of these days. I like sci-fi movies, I love David Bowie’s music, and weird ponderous seventies sci-fi is something that I can often get a kick out of, so it seemed like it should be something very much up my alley, I just never found the time. Which is one of the reasons that a project like this is so appealing, because it’s giving me an excuse to finally check out some stuff that I’ve been meaning to get around to. And, now that I’ve finally seen the Man Who Fell to Earth I ‘m aware that it’s okay!
The film, which is based off of a novel by Walter Tevis, was able to get produced after the success of director Nicolas Roeg’s previous film, Don’t Look Now. That film had been a hit for Paramount and they decided to allow Roeg to make a passion project, feeling that the director’s insights were keen enough to make another oddball hit for them. So, Roeg decided to try his hand at science fiction, and cast rock star David Bowie in the lead as an alien visiting Earth in order to save his doomed planet. And, seemingly immediately, they started to have a hell of a shoot. It seems to have been a rather disastrous production, with problems running the gamut from simple technological issues to dealing with a roving group of Hell’s Angels members who were camping out near the shoot all the way to David Bowie being temporarily laid up due to his unique diet of the time, which primarily revolved around red peppers, milk, and cocaine. And, speaking of cocaine, David Bowie largely didn’t remember any of the filming of this movie, considering the years where this film was made to be some of the darkest times of his drug addiction. There does seem to be some contrarian recollections from some of his cast mates, specifically Candy Clark, who feel like Bowie was maybe over-hyping his cocaine-fueled amnesia during this time period, possibly just adding to his legend of himself that was being built at the time, but regardless of exactly how inebriated Bowie was at any given moment during the filming of the movie, it certainly has become an emblematic example of his state at this period of his career. The film eventually was finished though, and presented to Paramount who were immediately horrified by what they’d been given. They refused to pay for the film, or distribute it, and it was only after a lawsuit from British Lion productions that the film even got any sort of American release, albeit a very small one. And, there were problems in England as well, where the film ended up only getting released with an X rating. The film was received rather lukewarm when it was released, which perhaps makes sense due to it’s minuscule release, but it seems that almost immediately the film was propelled to the status of a beloved cult movie. And it’s easy to see why the movie gained that sort of reputation, because it’s certainly an odd experience.
The film follows a humanoid alien who has arrived on Earth in order to find a way to help save his planet, which is in the midst of a terrible drought that has killed off a majority of the population. He finds himself in New Mexico, and adopts the name Thomas Newton as he begin amassing a small fortune through manipulating various pawn-shops around the area while doing tests of the water he comes across. And, when he gets enough money he meets with a patent lawyer named Oliver Farnsworth. Newton gives him the money as a retainer, and with Farnsworth’s help uses the vast knowledge that his civilization has acquired to patent all sorts of technological innovations here on Earth. They form a company called World Enterprises Corporation, and quickly becomes one of the richest and most powerful corporations on the planet. His goal is to create an amount of money necessary to build a space-craft capable to returning him to his home planet, along with the water necessary to save his doomed planet. And, in his quest to grow World Enterprises Corporation in order to make that money, he ends up relocating to New Mexico, where he will set up his headquarters, and begin work on his ship. And, while in New Mexico he ends up meeting a lonely hotel worker named Mary-Lou, and the two become close, with Newton essentially studying her and learning about humanity through her stories, while Mary-Lou begins falling in love with Newton.
And, while living in New Mexico, getting used to the ways of Earth, Thomas Newton ends up meeting a man named Nathan Bryce, a former professor who became obsessed with the innovations that World Enterprises were accomplishing, and made it his goal to be hired and work under Newton. The two become friends, but Bryce immediately begins to suspect that there’s something about Newton that doesn’t make sense. So, after luring Newton into a sense of security around him, he activates a hidden X-Ray camera that ends up confirming to him that Newton has alien physiology. But, he keeps that to himself for the time, and Newton does his best to ignore the fact that someone has figured out that he’s an alien. At this point in his life he’s become an alcoholic, and finds himself obsessed with television and movies, gradually losing track of his whole point for being on Earth. And, after a period of sadness and suspicion regarding Bryce, Newton decides to reveal his true biology to Mary-Lou. She becomes terrified of Newton, and the fact that she’s been living and sleeping with an alien, and ends up leaving him.
At this point Newton decides that it’s finally time to leave Earth, and begins the process of completing his space-craft and fleeing Earth. However, in the midst of a highly publicized launch of his space-craft Newton finds himself suddenly arrested. It’s a vast conspiracy involving the government, a rival businessman, and spies all around Newton who have begun to realize that there’s something supernatural about him. Newton is brought to a jail made-up to look like a hotel room, and is trapped inside for years, getting all manner of experiments done on him. They torment Newton and end up causing his fake eyes to fuse with his real ones, among other painful experiments. And, the whole time he’s kept placated with alcohol and television, resulting in Newton becoming a shambling addict. Bryce ends up discovering what has happened to Newton, and is able to convince people to let Mary-Lou visit him, but they’re both such disasters at this point that they just end up having alcohol-fueled fights that end with Mary-Lou leaving him for good, no longer having any affection for him. So, Newton is left alone, aging past everyone around him, until his captors just sort of lose interest. He finds that his cell is no longer locked, and he’s able to leave, left to shamble around the world. He briefly meets Bryce again, who is at this point an old man, and it becomes clear that he’s become too lost and broken to ever return to his home world again, his mission a failure.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is really a relic of its time. I may have overused the word “ponderous” earlier in the article, but it really does capture the general vibe of seventies sci-fi movies. There are definitely some that I like, and even love, but it’s certainly an acquired taste. They tend to be a little slow, a little stuck up their own ass, and occasionally a little boring. But, they can also be gorgeously shot, feature some really interesting ideas, and often pushed some boundaries for what could be in a movie. And, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a little of all of that. It was certainly worth checking out, but it didn’t quite live up to any expectations I may have built up for it. Which, obviously isn’t the movie’s fault, but it’s the reality. The movie has some interesting elements, it looks great, and plays around with some clever ideas, but it’s also a little too slow. It just kind of meanders around, while never really delving into some of its more interesting ideas. Honestly, the most interesting aspect of the film is probably the reason that it still has any real cult following. The casting of David Bowie. I have no idea how his casting came about, if Bowie was really into the book, or if Roeg just wanted to cash in on some celebrity, but it actually ended up being a genius move. The David Bowie of 1976 is the perfect person to play an alien. And, not just because he was a cocaine-fueled weirdo. Although that certainly helps. No, I think the real key to Bowie working so well in this film is the fact that, while he’s a performer, he’s not an actor. So, he’s not completely adrift in the film, but he still isn’t acting like a human being would. There’s just something awkward and alien about him, and it completely works for a being from another world who is doing his best to understand humanity.
Which, ends up being his downfall. Newton comes to Earth with a singular an noble purpose. He wants to save his dying world, and he thinks the key to it is on Earth. He comes with a plan, and when we first see him it seems like he’s accomplishing it pretty well. He has his scam, he gets his patents, and everything seems to be going well. But, then he starts to get interested in humanity, which takes the form of getting addicted to their drugs and their entertainment. And it causes him to fall apart. He falls into vice and leisure, and isn’t able to handle it. He can’t moderate himself, and ends up collapsing in on himself, losing his entire purpose, and sinking into a morass of complacency. Which, kind of makes him a human at that point. Entertainment is important, but it can easily become a crutch to ignore the real world. In these insanely trying times it can be easy to just bury your head under the sand and escape. But, it could also be at the expense of continuing your life.
So, I guess it’s time to see if I would recommend people seeking this film out to check it off their own bucket lists. And, I think for the first time during this series I would give a mixed answer. I’m certainly glad I saw it, but it’s not going to work for everyone. Hell, for most people. If you’re into this specific flavor of seventies sci-fi, check it out, it’s a decent example of that. And, if you’re really into David Bowie and want to be a completest, it’s certainly an interesting look at what he was like during this time period. Otherwise, it may be a miss for most people.
The Man Who Fell to Earth was written by Paul Mayersberg, directed by Nicolas Roeg, and released by British Lion Films, 1976.
Categories: The Bucket LIst