Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

by on July 3, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing thru Thurs July 7 at 1:00, 3:45, 7:00, 9:35 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Joshua Rothkopf for Time Out New York:

It may be time to stop calling Nicolas Roeg’s sexed-up sci-fi film that vaguely demeaning term—a cult classic—and start addressing it as what it is: the most intellectually provocative genre film of the 1970s. The allure of its perfectly cast star, David Bowie (emaciated and still months from going clean), overshadowed the content of the script in its day. Too easy, it was, to focus on Roeg’s cheap-looking effects and the weirdness of the Thin White Duke himself—playing a forlorn alien who quietly builds an Earth-based space program—and ignore Roeg’s rich testament to his own strange, adopted land: America.


Go back now and thrill to the movie’s evocative terrain, stretching from the canyons of Manhattan to the wide, open spaces of the Southwest—a poetic place of motels, banal government stooges and wild, white horses running alongside trains. (This, by the way, is what a Thomas Pynchon adaptation should look like; the actual novel, by Walter Tevis, is much changed.) The ultimate embodiment of it all is the fearless Candy Clark, playing a sweet caretaker turned mystified lover. Rip Torn’s horndog chemist, fighting off his own cynicism, is a close second. The tale is one of a meltdown, situated in a real-life national moment straddling paranoia and the inviting horizon; you can easily hold it up to Nashville, orange hair and all.



Steve Dollar for The Wall Street Journal:

Casting the changeling pop star David Bowie as an alien visitor might have seemed like a stunt to some in the mid-1970s, but no one could have been better suited for the title role in Nicolas Roeg’s elegiac sci-fi parable. With his hair the shade of a traffic cone and the sleek bone structure of a porcelain doll, the singer already was out of this world. His coolly understated performance as Thomas Newton, a space oddity turned King Midas, infused all that otherness with soulful longing. Glorious desert landscapes are juxtaposed with the chattering circuitry of modern life as the director advances his familiar sociological arguments amid hallucinogenic sequences that convey Newton’s consciousness at play. The supporting cast is classic. Buck Henry is Newton’s (coincidentally gay) corporate accomplice. Rip Torn plays a randy astrophysicist. And Candy Clark is Mary Lou, a hotel maid who falls in love with the stranger and gets him to—literally—come out of his shell.


Matt Noller for Slant:

Among the most bizarre films in Nicolas Roeg’s oeuvre, his 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth is a singular, haunting sci-fi experience. Having left his planet in search of technology to save his home and family from death by a global warming-induced drought (one of many plot points clarified in the novel but left intriguingly, sometimes maddeningly vague in the film), Thomas Newton (David Bowie, sensitive and ethereal) arrives on Earth by plummeting into a New Mexico lake. The crash is presented by Roeg as a series of cuts and dissolves between Newton’s spacecraft and the New Mexico landscape, and the result is the impression of an interstellar traveler arriving in an alien land. Like Roeg’s Walkabout, Man Who Fell to Earth is an exploration of an individual’s grappling with an unfamiliar and unfriendly landscape, but whereas in Walkabout the landscape is the Australian outback, here it’s the entirety of Earth.


The narrative of the film seems like a fairly straightforward sci-fi setup, but Roeg turns it into something mysterious, elliptical, and poetic. He strips the film of all but the most elemental narrative information; he’s more interested in tone and emotion than plot. Taking a cue from directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, Roeg frequently crosscuts between unconnected scenes and plays with the soundtrack in disruptive ways. As in the world of Godard, music starts and stops abruptly without any apparent logic or reason, and dialogue from one scene frequently plays out over footage from another. Sometimes Roeg’s experiments yield stunning results, evocative, and dreamlike, but occasionally they seem arbitrary and random, as if Roeg was screwing around without any idea of what his choices meant.


Man Who Fell to Earth is an aggressively imperfect film, alternately beautiful, mystifying, and embarrassing, and it’s a film to be treasured as much for its ambitious failures as for its successes. Like Icarus and Newton, Roeg sometimes aims for more than he’s able to accomplish, but the moments where he approaches the sun are glorious.



Graham Fuller for Criterion:

Science-fiction drama, western, love story, metaphysical mystery, satire of modern America—TheManWhoFelltoEarth is the most beguiling of the films that, in a dozen years embracing the 1970s, established Nicolas Roeg as a mainstream heir to such 1960s experimentalists as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, and Chris Marker. With its fragmented narrative, its genre hopping, its strategic crosscutting, and its dense tapestry of disassociative visual and musical allusions, the film was an enigma for many of the British critics who warily reviewed it in April 1976, and no less so for their American counterparts when it was released in the United States, minus twenty crucial minutes, two months later.

As both panorama and chamber piece, the film is beautiful to look at, and beautiful, too, in its mysteriousness, in the challenge it sets us as viewers. It is as kaleidoscopic as Roeg and codirector Donald Cammell’s Performance but painted on a much broader canvas, and so needs to be experienced in its full glory if comprehensibility is an object.


David Fear interviews Roeg for Time Out New York:

Time Out New York: The film is so associated with a distinct moment in the mid-’70s, yet it seems more contemporary than ever, don’t you think?
Nicolas Roeg: Well, it’s 35 years old, yet here you and I are, still talking about the film today—so there has to be something timeless about it, right? Timing counts so much for these types of things. It’s funny, because when we eventually opened in Los Angeles, I think we played a few small theaters and then pfft, we were gone. Audiences didn’t want science fiction anymore, apparently. And then months later, I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that huge domelike theater in Los Angeles [the Cinerama on Sunset Boulevard] with a massive crowd, and thought, My God! We were way too early. [Laughs]


You were ahead of the curve in many ways, especially regarding the media.
Substitute that wall of TVs with a wall of computer monitors, and you could make the film today. It’s a curious thing, this notion of time, isn’t it? The present instantly becomes the past before you can even acknowledge it, and even the notions of how you and I consider the past—I’m a good deal older than you—are vastly different. That was something I felt very connected to in The Man Who Fell to Earth: the concept of this person who was sort of stuck out of time. Mr. Newton was this freaky alien who came here with very advanced notions of science and space travel, then the minute the world caught up to him…he was nobody, just another person who felt alienated from the world, stuck in his own neuroses. [Pause] And if you ever want to make a film that inadvertently charts the passage of time, just put “the latest” special effects in it. Nothing will date your movie quicker than those! [Laughs]



Darrell Hartman for Artforum:

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a simple story, willfully scrambled into something much more complicated. In a nutshell: Newton migrates to our world to build a spaceship that will allow him to return to his home planet, which has run out of water, so that he can presumably bring his wife and children back to Earth. But he’s undone by alcohol, television, and the machinations of a suspicious government agency.


It’s not clear what Newton’s powers are, but he does at one point seem to peer through time. As he’s being chauffeured through the American West, a roadside meadow suddenly becomes populated with nineteenth-century settlers. They’re just as surprised to see Newton, speeding by in his limousine, as he is to see them. Where are we? In the present, looking into the past? Or in the past, experiencing a vision of the future, albeit one less terrifying than the bloody prefigurations of Roeg’s 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now? Forward, backward: The individual and collective unconscious stretches miles and miles in both directions.


And don’t forget Alt Screen editor Matt Connolly’s feature on David Bowie’s acting career:

The eroticized aloofness; the poignant isolation that comes from being worshipped and not understood; the pursuit of connection through ritualized gestures and otherworldly fantasies: such are the ideas upon which Bowie’s subsequent film roles rest. This was never more apparent than in his first starring role, as questing alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s beguiling SF allegory, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).


As a performance, Bowie’s Newton doesn’t quite cohere in the traditional sense. It feels like a series of emotional and intellectual notes in search of a coherent melody. Bowie’s relative inexperience as an actor rears its head in some emotionally discordant moments, such as when Mary-Lou lashes out at Newton’s chilly reserve and violently clings to him until his shirt rips open. Bowie’s theatrically anguished reactions are less like Brechtian distanciation than studied melodramatic tics. And when Newton recalls his home planet, is the poignant longing in Bowie’s eyes really even there? Or is it an editor’s skillful slight of hand: a Kuleshovian juxtaposition of Bowie’s face with Roeg’s hypnotic deserts landscapes, twirling extraterrestrial bodies and milk-drenched intergalactic copulation?


It doesn’t really matter. The Man Who Fell to Earth wouldn’t have the same air of chilly, free-floating angst without this disjointed quality in Bowie’s work. Newton is a man who fell out of time as well as space. He floats through an ever more-garish miasma of televisual excess, insidious double-dealing and soul-deadening consumption. That Newton responds to these with a schizophrenic mixture of obsessiveness, contempt and erratic bouts of despair helps shifts the focus from psychology to sociology: how the world imposes itself upon—and eventually consumes—the individual.


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