Next in the Made In Britain season comes Nicolas Roeg’s science fiction classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
‘He was not a man; yet he was very much like a man’ (The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis –1963).
Please be aware that this review contains spoilers.
Wandering around the countryside in search of civilisation, self-named Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) slowly accumulates a cash fund through pawning several wedding rings. This leads to the launch of what will become an enormous and financially successful business venture, one that he feels requires the aid and backing of highly regarded patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Newton, you see, has developed a number of scientific innovations and wants Farnsworth to act as his front man for the company that he names World Enterprises. Despite his scientific superiority and apparently unstoppable business acumen the frail Newton, if that is his name, has many issues to contend with. He is a very private individual, seems to have many secrets and he shuns publicity. He begins a relationship with his hotel chambermaid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) and eventually they move in together. He does reveal some of his secrets to her. He has a wife and children, something that Mary-Lou suspected, but what she was perhaps not entirely prepared for was Newton’s revelation as to where his family is located. His prospects are uncertain as his future plans conflict with business greed. The wider knowledge of his true nature could have horrifying consequences not only for Newton but for his beloved family, in dehydrated desperation on drought-ridden planetary soil far from the Earth.
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell To Earth tells the story of an alien visitor who has not come to conquer the earth nor to represent his society to leaders and politicians, but merely to find water for his family. As such, the film is a heartbreaking tale that represents an alien’s need in very human terms. Newton’s understanding of economics leads to him swiftly establishing a corporate empire and his ‘inventions’ bring knowledge to the world and provide consumers with great products. As he sells his wedding rings to suspicious small town pawnbrokers in the USA, Newton claims that he is British, which explains his otherness to the locals. The unfurling science-fictional aspects of the plot combine with commentary on the corporate and business world as well as the trustworthiness of the people he brings in to work with him. And then there is the emotional element – the futility of Newton’s mission, the tragedy when his true nature is discovered, his resignation at his fate.
Typical of Roeg’s style, the film has a non-linear structure and a narrative that develops slowly and with a good deal of ambiguity – initially. David Bowie emerged (for a little while) from his career as a rock star to break out into acting, and he is an appropriate choice for Roeg’s lead. His androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust had a sense of otherworldliness, which is entirely befitting for this role.
The Man Who Fell to Earth remains one of the most consistently engaging, enlightening and fascinating films of the 1970s and one of science fiction’s intellectual greats – a combination of crisply colourful widescreen cinematography with an intelligent, occasionally brash and surprisingly touching story.