I was never able to watch The Man Who Fell to Earth all the way through. The first time I tried was early last year. I switched the film off after about forty-five minutes or so, feeling it was dull and strange without a real sense of offered connection. I came back to it after a while, eventually finishing it in bits and pieces.. While this seems like a far from ideal way to watch a film, it seems oddly fitting for The Man Who Fell to Earth. The film is about Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), an alien from some distant, unnamed desert planet who crash lands on Earth looking for water. His home is undergoing a drought and he comes boldly searching for respite for his dying family. However, while on Earth he almost accidentally becomes something of a millionaire genius akin to Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. In his success, Bowie’s Newton slowly loses touch with his original mission of saving his home and succumbs to the trappings of wealth and success.
At its core, The Man Who Fell to Earth is about disaffection and loneliness. It’s about a man who’s hollowed out by the world and his inability to deal with it; a man who feels a perpetual stranger in a strange land. There’s a particular scene where Newton goes on a leisurely drive with his girlfriend, Mary Lou (Candy Clark). As they pass through an open pasture, Newton is stricken with some vision of a distant past, seeing horses and frontiersmen where everyone else sees nothing. Subsequently, he sees his home planet and his wife and children. Newton not only experiences Earth differently from everyone else, but he’s also constantly affected by this hiraeth-ian longing for his home planet, a longing that likely will never be quelled. It’s this distant, fragmented style the movie has, breaking in and out of a solemn reality, that makes it so that I can’t help but feel that my unconventional viewing of the film was maybe the best way to view it. It’s a flawed movie; a movie out of place. To watch it as one would watch any other film wouldn’t be right.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is obviously dated now. Newton, at the height of his emotional collapse, has an entire wall of televisions that he takes refuge in, like some take refuge in drugs or alcohol. You can almost hear director Nicolas Roeg from behind the screen: “We are all the aliens on this strange planet.” Newton’s alienation is a sort of stand-in for the alienation everyday people feel as a result of technology and constant stimulus. The allegory is a well-worn one today, rendered cliche forty years after its initial inception. The nefarious and somewhat faceless corporations within the film are very-of-its-time as well, and come across as cartoonish more than antyhing. (The modern world kinda sucks, we get it.) Yet, the film still carries an odd-staying power, overcoming its ham-fisted thematics.
Bowie’s Newton is a character affected by grief and longing. He connects with no one, and the one person who seems to show him a modicum of what could be called love, runs in fear when he reveals his true, alien self. The plight of Thomas Jerome Newton is one that resonates. He is a character who, by material standards, is doing immeasurably well. However, he is a being who is so incommensurately empty that no amount of money or success could fill him up at all. At the film’s close, he is a washed-up alcoholic barely clinging to his sanity. But his company is a great success.
It’s the empathy Roeg conjures from Newton that makes the film work as well as it does. The surreal and even soporific landscape of the film that seems off-putting and distant at first is eventually revealed to be a reflection of Bowie’s characters’ psychic landscape. The higher he rises in society and the more entrenched in everything he becomes, the farther away his old life seems. Newton’s family are seen only in brief, fractured snippets. They’re hardly characters, and that’s because Newton sees them as such. In fact, I have since wondered if perhaps Thomas Jerome Newton wasn’t an alien at all, but merely an eccentric who created a past to explain the deep hole in his sense of self. The film, as a whole, is that kind of cold, even off-putting at times, but if you’re willing to wait and continue watching, The Man Who Fell to Earth has much to offer even after you have finished it. But make sure you finish it.
Featured Image: British Lion Films