Friday, October 15, 2010


The track record for pop recording artists successfully transitioning to motion pictures is checkered at best. For every A Hard Day’s Night or The Rose there’s a Shanghai Surprise or Under the Cherry Moon. If the more successful examples of this often painful sub-genre have anything in common, it's that they tend to be vehicles that don't unduly strain the talents of the artist in question, and, contextually speaking, serve to augment and exploit the star's already established public image.
Elvis merely had to channel his stage persona for Jailhouse Rock; Roger Daltrey really WAS Tommy; and 70’s pop sensation David Bowie found the perfect vehicle for his otherworldly Ziggy Stardust/ Space Oddity image in Nicolas Roeg’s dreamily poetic adaptation of Walter Trevis’ sci-fi classic: The Man Who Fell to Earth.
                                                                   David Bowie

Simply told, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the story of a traveler (Bowie) from a drought-decimated planet who comes to earth with a vague plan to save his world's remaining survivors. (The plan is made explicit in the novel: he intends to build a ship that will transport his planet’s survivors to earth to colonize, and if necessary, forestall nuclear war).


Armed with the advanced technology and intellect characteristic of his people, the determinedly pragmatic alien (who goes by the name of Thomas Jerome Newton and carries a British passport) is rendered defenseless by his inability to comprehend the complex and sometimes paradoxical workings of the human soul.
A treatise on everything from alienation, longing, corruption, ambition and hope, The Man Who Fell to Earth is that most intriguing brand of science fiction film: one that recognizes that the advancements of science seem never rise above the limitations of man.
                                    A world without water, a family left behind
I really enjoy how The Man Who Fell to Earth plays with the concept of time. The story has the feel and scope of an epic but there is no reference to just how much time has elapsed. Major events unfurl, inventions reorganize lives, yet Bowie's unchanging flawlessness stands in poignant counterpoint to the aging decay of those around him. Roeg's employment of fluid time imbues Tevis' novel with an abstract metaphysical richness that makes this somewhat familiar "fish-out-of-water" tale shimmer with keen human insights and finely-observed perceptions about loneliness and the universal need to connect.
                                                              Close without Contact

Whether by design or luck, surrounding the relatively stiff and inexpressive Bowie with a team of idiosyncratically naturalistic actors (Rip Torn, Candy Clark, & Buck Henry) evocatively underscores Bowie's inerasable "otherness" as the alien and brings into tragic relief his unending estrangement from those he seeks to understand.
Hands-down the film's best performance is given by Rip Torn as the disillusioned idealist Nathan Bryce, but Candy Clark is the emotional center of the film. As Mary-Lou, a small-town girl lonelier and more isolated than the alien she falls in love with, Clark does some very intelligent things in bringing some dimension to a character who's not-too-bright.
                             Candy Clark as Mary-Lou: Looking for Love
A plea to be seen instead of just being watched        
                               Mary-Lou & Nathan find one another in old age
                               "I don't want her to get lonely."

There is just something so right about the conceit that an alien from another planet would look like an orange-haired British pop star. It adds yet another layer of pop cultural awareness to a film that equates human greed, ambition and folly to a preoccupation with surface appearance and an inability to actually see what is right before our eyes.
                                                  Rip Torn: "Are you a Lithuanian?"
                                                         Bowie: "Don't be suspicious."

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a film filled with fluid imagery. Both literally and figuratively. Liquids, in the form of water, alcohol and bodily fluids, are a major visual motif and subtextural theme.

Having lived for more than 50 years, I've seen my share of technological advancements. Sci-fi movies are inclined to envision the future as some utopian ideal with all our problems solved by technology or as a nightmarish world of "1984" -ish technological enslavement. My experience has been that no matter how advanced the invention, we humans have a way of modifying it to accommodate our basest natures.

The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn't position itself in any easily identified point in time and tells a tale of a savior, of sorts, who comes to earth and yet the most use we have for him is corporate in nature. Money and power rule, and while the corrupt and ambitious move the world along to its inevitable annihilation, people fumble about trying to connect while blind to ever discovering how to do so.

You can keep your "Star Wars" gadget fetishism and your Close Encounters of the Third Kind wish-fulfillment fantasy, I'll take the wistful vision of space travel offered by The Man Who Fell to Earth. A film whose catchline could have been: "In space no one can hear you cry."
                                            "I think maybe Mr. Newton has had enough."

VOGUE Theater, San Francisco  1976
Promotional check that entitled the recipient to $1 off towards the purchase of a
"The Man Who Fell To Earth" movie poster

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Great article on a great film.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and giving the article a read!

  3. Very cool article I just happened to stumble on, great having TMWFTE on Netflix stream...

    1. Much appreciated! Didn't know the film was on Netfilx stream. Maybe more people will give a look. It's certainly a fascinating film.

    2. Seeing this film for the first time it makes me wonder if it could changed my life back in the day...such is the power of film. It is sci-fi at it's most ambitious, and a marvelous film way ahead of it's time; and relevant even now. And yes, kudos to Netflix for providing it.

    3. If you enjoyed the film that much, you should check out the novel by Walter Tevis. Although I think the film is the rare examples of a movie adaptation significantly enhancing the book, it's a terrific read, nonetheless. Thanks for visiting my blog!

  4. Ken, Well-observed take on a film I haven't seen since it was first in release. In those days I was a great Bowie fan and rushed (with a group of friends) to see a matinee screening of TMWFTE at the Vogue Theatre in SF soon after the film opened.

    1. Hi Lady Eve
      What do you know...we both saw it at the same theater at the same time! I'm a huge Bowie fan myself and this early (first?) screen outing was a must see for many. In some ways it can appear heavy-handed and thus more attractive to a young sensibility, but I think it has aged surprisingly well. Thanks for commenting!

    2. I saw it also when it was released and again soon after (i live in Toronto - Canada)... a huge Bowie fan - Been long enough now i must see it again !! I always thought the supporting cast were ideal for this movie.

    3. Hi Marcia
      I agree, it is an very well-cast movie. They are all so vividly human that Bowie does indeed seem like an alien in their presence. I hope you enjoy revisiting the film. And thanks very much for taking the time to comment!

  5. I saw this film on VHS just after I turned 17. (This was the mid-1990s.) I watched it several times, but beautiful as it is, it was so devastatingly sad I've never been able to revisit it in full since -- though I've since "read" the novel via audiobook. Actually, the first time I watched it I had to take breaks every so often to process it properly. I'm sure part of it stems from my being a high-functioning autistic person -- it wasn't hard to identify with Thomas, particularly in the scenes where he gets overwhelmed by the multiple TV sets or the awful climax (of sorts) when he gets X-rayed.

    I love David Bowie in all his forms. Exploring his work in the mid-'90s helped me recover I think at least a bit from an awful bout of teenage depression, and then a few years ago I got back into the habit of collecting/enjoying his work. He's the basis of the only tattoo I will ever have (his name in beautiful cursive, on my right ankle). I caught the "David Bowie Is" museum retrospective in Toronto and Chicago and kept going back to it to bask in all those costumes, sketches, clips, etc. They had one of his suits from this film as part of the exhibit, complete with the hat!

    1. Hi Rori
      Thank you sharing with such candor your feelings about this film and what it meant to you. Films like this seem rather timeless to me when I watch them now. The approach Roeg took in telling this tale is every bit as otherworldly as its flawed hero.
      I don't know that I've ever responded to Bowie as strongly in any of his rare screen appearances, but as a musician and presence, he's impressive as hell. Fabulous that you have a Bowie tattoo, but i think I like so much that you tapped into the sadness at the core of this film. I think it's a movie of ideas and feelings more than a straight narrative.
      I must write a piece about films that are painful to revisit. I have a few of my own. Thanks for the wonderful comment! Like many of the folks I'm so gratified to have visit this blog, you relate to film in ways that go beyond merely hoping to be entertained.

  6. Thank you for appreciating my comments!

    Bowie has genuine acting talent, I think, but his powerful presence is what really makes him so intriguing onscreen, and it's what filmmakers responded to. Of course, as new cinema faded out in the 1980s the kind of projects that could fit such a presence -- ones about, as you put it, "ideas and feelings" -- dried up, so...

    Becoming a Bowie fan was a turning point for my appreciation of art as a teen. Early in the '90s I was a huge Michael Jackson fan, but come late 1993 it suddenly became...difficult to be one. That actually factored into my depression at the time. I remember arguing with my mom over how brilliant and generous and misunderstood he was, and she pointing out that he wasn't THAT deep.

    I'd actually been fascinated by Bowie since I was 5 and seen some of his music videos on MTV, immediately thinking he was the most handsome man in the world, but most of his work was rather more adult than Jackson's, thus inaccessible to me for a longer time. The key exception to that rule was "Labyrinth", which I saw at a local free kiddie matinee in 1988. I found him similarly captivating in that but couldn't quite verbalize why.

    Well, years later and a few months after the depressive period had reached its bottom and I was starting to emerge, I caught the movie on cable, felt that old feeling again and actually started researching Bowie and his body of work. It took a deal of legwork being a few years before the Internet went mainstream, but an autistic person can be quite tenacious with their interests, and I loved what I heard/saw, even if some of it I wouldn't fully appreciate until years later. Bowie's world isn't as "nice" and "magical" as Jackson's purported to be, but it's more fulfilling emotionally and intellectually, even if it's often painful. (In particular, I think he's the far superior artist in the music video medium. I think it's awful that the lifetime achievement award that the MTV folks give out each year is named for Jackson, not Bowie...because Bowie was one of the inaugural winners back in 1984, alongside Richard Lester and The Beatles granted. Jackson didn't win until 1988 and its renaming came in 1991, because he was powerful enough to insist upon it as a condition of letting MTV have his newer videos.)

    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Rori
      I think when it comes to the arts, there always seems to come a moment when the personal life of an artist challenges how we perceive their art, causing us to examine just where we each draw the line. Polanski and Woody Allen are like that for me.
      Both Bowie and Jackson are true trailblazers, and reading about your appreciation of Bowie's body of work reminds me of how long he's been around and how vast his contribution has been.
      I really need to make an effort to see some of his other films. I think that gigolo film he made with Marlene Dietrich was the last one I saw.
      Thanks for sharing more of your thoughts on navigating thee waters of artistic fandom and appreciation. The arts really touch us all is such interesting and personal ways.