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Hooked to the Silver Screen: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

This is the big one! By the time of his death, David Bowie had appeared in dozens of movies, documentaries, music videos, television shows, a Broadway play and even a video game, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is his most iconic role, aside from that of being a rock star. There are so many recognizable images of Bowie in this movie that, if you’ve never seen it, you’ll be surprised they came from this movie. That’s the image used for the cover of Low! And that’s the one used for Station to Station! And I have a poster of him from that scene! (I actually do). If you think of David Bowie from 1976, you are probably visualizing an image from this movie.

And like many of Bowie’s dramatic appearances, he seems to be working out some of the same issues in this movie as he was in his music from around the same time. I’ll get back to that, but for all of these reasons I think this film is going to resonate differently for Bowie fans versus those with little familiarity with Bowie. For me, if Bowie wasn’t in it, I wouldn’t have liked the movie at all. I might have turned it off before it was over. Slow paced, illogical, hard to follow— without Bowie to stare at, this movie is a boring mess.

One of the first things we see is Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, apparently coming to Earth in the guise of a human. Now, before I go on— of course that’s what we’re seeing, right? Well, I was trying to think of how I would understand the images I was seeing if I knew nothing about the film. Right out of the gates, I think you need to know what the movie is broadly about to understand what you’re seeing. But OK, assume we all know that the series of images at the very beginning show an interplanetary spacecraft landing in a remote area on Earth (and forget that we never see what happens to the wreckage of the spacecraft) and that Bowie, who looks like a human, is an alien in disguise. And although he has the disguise and speaks English, and we’d soon learn he has a passport, he needs to sell a ring to get $20. So, this alien planned everything out down to manufacturing a fake British passport, but he forgot money. OK— just roll with all this.

So he sells the ring, gets $20…then the next thing we see is that he has a huge wad of $100 bills. Where did that come from? Are we to assume that Newton took the $20 and was so entrepreneurial that he used it to earn thousands? How? Over what period of time? Or did he have the wad from the beginning, in which case the ring-selling scene makes even less sense. Actually, it’s sort of a good thing that the movie begins this way because it serves as fair warning that that’s how it’s gonna be. At some point, I’ll re-watch the movie and keep track of all its logical inconsistences and write about just that. Such a post will be considerably longer than this one.

The passage of time is another disorienting aspect of the film. We can never be quite sure how much time passes between one scene and the next. Newton experiences a series of rises and falls, but both the ascents and descents are abrupt. The characters other than Newton all age (nobody mentions that Newton does not age), so we can deduce that some years pass between the beginning and the end, but the temporal relationship between scenes is confusing. Time is an issue within the movie itself, as opposed to the story being told by the movie, in that it has a fairly long run time and very slow pace. Though not unique, this is atypical for a science fiction movie. Don’t expect space battles and laser guns– this is not Star Wars.

Add to all that, the grainy mid-70s cinematography seems to be a mismatch for a story that has something to do with advanced technology. The colors and images in Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odessey still look relatively sharp and crisp to me — for that matter so do they in The Wizard of Oz. I watched a stream of The Man Who Fell to Earth — it looked like a 10th generation VHS tape copy. I suspect like everything I already mentioned, director Nicholas Roeg — who was a cinematographer for two of the most visually stunning films of all time, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago— did this on purpose, though I’m at a loss as to why.

OK, for all that– and I could go on with what I don’t like– The Man Who Fell to Earth has a lot going for it and, in the end, is probably right to be considered an important film. To kick off the good, I’ll mention one of the few funny moments in the otherwise humorless movie– a character walks into a record store and passes a display featuring Bowie’s then-new album, Young Americans.

OK, good point #2: aside from Bowie, the movie’s next three stars are all Academy Award nominees: Candy Clark and Rip Torn have both been nominated for acting and Buck Henry, who seemed ubiquitous in the 70s, was nominated for both screenwriting and directing. All three turn in quality performances, especially Candy Clark who really leaves nothing on the table. This was Bowie’s first starring role, and I think he was directed to walk around acting like David Bowie in the mid-70s, so his performance was also very strong but I’m not sure exactly how much acting was going on with him.

This brings me back to what Bowie might have been trying to work out with this story. For me, The Man Who Fell to Earth works better as something to think about after the fact than it was to watch. Roeg uses something akin to Bowie’s cut up technique, which he in turn got from William S. Burroughs, which puts a demand on the audience to piece together the narrative elements once the movie is all done. So, what the movie is about is this: Newton leaves his desolate planet for Earth to bring back water to keep his family alive. As far as we can tell from the few scenes that take place on the alien planet, there’s nobody and nothing else there. On Earth, Newton takes some superficial steps to try to fit in, but his appearance and mannerisms are inauthentic. He isn’t really like anyone else. In some respects, he possesses unique genius– he uses his alien knowledge to register basic patents that make him enormously wealthy in a short period of time. But what he values is different than what others value. He wants money to build a spacecraft to bring his family water. I have read that his mission is to bring his planet water, but I don’t think that’s quite right– I think he’s simply trying to keep his wife and two children alive (the question of why they didn’t come with him is neither asked nor answered). Newton is capable of making connections with others, sometimes even coming across like he has special bonds with individuals, like Candy Clark’s character, Mary-Lou, but he’s more typically remote and inaccessible. Newton goes to Earth on a noble mission, but fairly swiftly gets sidetracked by alcohol and television, which I think are stand-ins for drugs and pop culture, or consumerism more broadly. His paranoid fears eventually come true as he is abducted, overanalyzed and ultimately left damaged by a hard-to-define “them” (there’s an intentional irony of the alien abduction myth playing out in reverse here). Ultimately, Newton fails at his mission. His family dies out in space and he’s stuck on Earth, ageless, loveless, drunk and permanently trapped in his disguise. Though he’s rich, and maybe even admired, Newton is a failure.

There is no movie more like a Bowie song than this. Alienation? Check. Misunderstood genius? Check. Artifice? Check. Sex and drugs? Check and check. We even have a star man named Tom. Ultimately, the message of this movie is depressing. Instead of alien life answering the question of whether we are alone in the negative, the inscrutable Newton demonstrates that we are all alone (Bowie’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is unique among his songs in saying otherwise). Life is chaotic and hard to predict. The best of planning can nonetheless overlook details that are key to execution. Distractions can be deadly to one’s higher aspirations, and distractions come easy. The isolation of space is safer and more comfortable than the tumult of society. there are no happy endings– maybe the best place to end up is unconscious. I’d rather be high. He was thrown into the wagon, blindfolded, chains, and they stomped on us. The days fall on their knees. The kids had killed the man. A judgement made can never bend.

Much as I could almost do a scene-by-scene analysis pointing out inconsistencies, I could do the same thing comparing scenes and dialog to Bowie songs, some of which had not yet been written. I would have liked if it The Man Who Fell to Earth was more enjoyable to actually watch, but I have to admit that it is the most essential piece of Bowie’s non-musical art.

Good use of Bowie?
Bowie would use other acting roles to explore some of his musical themes, but there is no better marriage between actor and role in his filmography than this. As I mentioned, I wouldn’t have endured this movie if someone else played Newton. It’s hard to think that it could have been made in the first place had Bowie never existed. The role of Newton was obviously important to Bowie– his musical Lazarus is Newton’s continuing story (there was a television show with that aspiration as well, but I haven’t seen it and have little interest in doing so). I’ve read some reviews that seem to suggest that this is the only good use of Bowie in a movie, and while I don’t agree with that, I agree that the answer to the simple question as to whether this was a good use of Bowie is a solid yes.

I feel conflicted because of the tension between the value of this movie as entertainment versus its importance and place in the Holy Book of Bowie, but I think the latter far outweighs the former and I have to give it four out of four Bowies. If you weren’t interested in Bowie, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, but if I’m wrong about that then no, it isn’t the best, but this is a Bowie blog and, in a way, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the ultimate David Bowie movie.


And to see where The Man Who Fell to Earth ranks with other Bowie and Bowie related movies, click HERE

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