Movie Reviews 515 – The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

While I first heard about the movie adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth before the original novel by Walter Tevis, I honestly can’t recall if I first read it or whether I managed to catch the film at a repertory cinema back in the day. What I can say is that I loved both. I’ll  talk a bit more about Tevis further down.

The story of a technologically advanced alien who left his home planet suffering a cataclysmic global drought, much of the hype from the film was due to its star, namely rocker David Bowie. At the height of his glam rock popularity – a career ironically launched by Space Oddity, itself a song about a doomed astronaut, albeit a human one – Bowie with his anisocoria eyes and ashen complexion were an idyllic fit for the role.

My copy of the novel

Landing his spacecraft close to an innocuous small desert town and adapting the name “Newton”, the interstellar traveler trades gold rings he has brought with him for some petty cash to get him going. With Newton’s knowledge of advanced science he quickly embarks on an ambitious plan to amass a fortune big enough for him to build a large spaceship that he can use to rescue the wife and children he left behind on his native dying planet.

Requiring the help of someone who understands the legalese and patent wherewithal to pull off his scheme Newton approaches Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) with design drawings. Astounded by what Newton has presented him in terms of novel ideas and inventions the two form a partnership and incorporate “World Enterprises” to build and sell an array of revolutionary products. While Farnsworth becomes the mouthpiece for the company Newton becomes the reclusive multi-millionaire behind the scenes, but does capture the intrigue of a rebel, skirt-chasing professor, Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn). Eventually Bryce is hired by Farnsworth and manages to piece together Newton’s true identity, befriending him and becoming his confidante. Meanwhile Newton holes up in another small town hotel room and takes in waitress Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) as a quasi-lover.

But living on Earth presents Newton with some unanticipated challenges not the least of which is a growing suspicion among the authorities. As Newton is presented with delays, time is running out on saving his family despite the fact that his lifespan it turns out is much longer than that of his aging human companions. Newton’s journey is in fact a very human experience in the end, fragile and susceptible to vices. 

Director Nicholas Roeg utilized a somewhat stilted approach to filming but the few annoying tendencies are easily forgiven. One thing Roeg did not shy away from was loads of liberal sex scenes to a degree that was daring even for a 70s film. On the other hand the special effects, sets and props, with the exception of a few scenes, are a bit threadbare and muted, presumably due to budgetary constraints. While there is a ‘water’ subtext throughout and hints of religious allegory that elicit further reflection there are also a few perplexing scenes, notably Newton having an inexplicable vision of a pioneer village.

For a film featuring Bowie one would expect that the star would have a part when it came to the music and score but surprisingly that fell into the hands of John Philips of The Mamas and the Papas fame.

I was so enamoured with Tevis’ book that I searched high and low for other science fiction novels of his only to find one, Mockingbird, an underrated post apocalyptic tale which I loved even more. Tevis passed away at a relatively young age and only wrote a few novels, but those few have garnered more than their share of acclaim. Aside from The Man Who Fell to Earth whose notoriety comes from the film, Tevis was probably best known for penning both The Hustler and its sequel The Color of Money each of which were highly acclaimed billiards films 25 years apart. More recently the chess prodigy mini series The Queen’s Gambit based on his novel once again resurrected Tevis’ profile. 

Last but not least, as I write this I learned that there is now a TV series based on the novel  that just made its debut mere days ago. I haven’t heard or read any commentary or reviews yet so I can’t say anything about it. Hopefully it will be good, but for myself there will always be a special place for the original novel and this movie.

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