The Man Who Fell to Earth


Score (for Bowie fans): 3 out of 5

Score (for Non-Bowies): 2 out of 5

Verdict: Kinda bad movie, but still interesting. Has its moments. Great Bowie stuff.

The Movie

The Man Who Fell to Earth was David Bowie's film debut. It offers copious amounts of nudity. Gratuitous nudity that involves actors that you don't want to see naked (like Rip Torn), but also of the full-frontal, Bowie variety. It's famous for its avant garde storytelling, which means, "Fragmented, pretentious, and hard to understand," and it also has some unpleasant hallmarks of exactly what it is, which is a mid 70's picture. So it tries to be arty and innovative, but in some ways it's dated and even painful to watch in places.

But first things first. You can get this DVD affordably from your Budget Canoe.
This is the one we have. It's from 2003, a fine transfer that comes with a great lil 'Making Of' Documentary.

Or you can go in your Fancy Canoe and shell out $25 for the Criterion Edition.
This one has the documentary and loads of other features, including a commentary track that even David Bowie contributes to! Big Wow for that!

Choose your version carefully. If you're an extreme Bowiephile and/or you like independent films, arthouse crap, and culty movies that are hard to follow, go for the Criterion Edition. If you're just a regular movie guy, get the standard one.

The Elements

This is based on the novel by Walter Tevis. Reportedly, this is an excellent book, but your average moviegoer hasn't read it and probably never will. This is why we've made the Movie Page here before reading said novel. Some people say, "Well, it makes sense if you've read the book," but that's dumb. Art media Crossover is supposed to be a hobby, not a crutch or a requirement for coherent filmmaking (or film reviewing, for that matter).

We all know that being a Bowie fan means watching some odd movies. Bowie is The Original Film Star NeverWas. He had all the talent to be an actor, but he also wanted to be an artist of every other genre. Life's too short for everything, so he settled for being a rock star and world-renowned musician. But he had some acting gigs on the side, most of which were very offbeat, and now he has millions of fans who stalk his career and invariably try to sort out these strange films. But The Man Who Fell to Earth is bizarre even for a Bowie film. It's "Neo-Scifi Arthouse Drama," three things that shouldn't go together, and don't.

The Plot

Thomas Newton is an alien who comes to Earth in the attempt to save his planet, which is dying of drought. He plans to take water back home or ferry the survivors back to Earth. Disguised as a human and able to speak English, he becomes a successful businessman. He patents a bunch of neat products and makes tons of money, enough to build a supercool spaceship. But on the day he's supposed to launch it, his people turn on him and he's kidnapped by bastards from the government. They keep him prisoner and do mean experiments on him, and they even destroy his spaceship.

In the meantime, the people on his home planet die, and Thomas gets stuck on earth. He decends into despair and alcoholism, but he does stay young and cute forever because apparently his species doesn't age. And he even releases an LP ("The Visitor"), so it's a sad story but not all bad.

The Bowie

This performance is incredible. Such a young guy, almost no experience, and he bags this thing and sends it home like a pro. Supposedly it helped that he was out of his head with substance problems for much of the shoot. Some fans don't consider this a good performance, because it was too easy. Thomas Newton is an autobiography of Bowie's drug-related alienation from the world, and this is how he was able to affect such odd behavior and general disconnection. At the same time, you can't even tell that he's coked, which is amazing. Thomas is eerily still and vacant at times, but just as often he's a living eccentric with real thoughts and reactions. The skill was in Bowie's ability to switch these mental states with complete accuracy, even within a scene. Sometimes Thomas gazes off and disappears, but then he suddenly comes back and is a foreigner trying to process some strange, human condition, and his little expressions are perfect every time.

Bowie never overacts, but he's not naturally subtle either. He's deliberately nuanced; you can sometimes tell that he's controlling his reactions to keep them subtle, but it comes off organic and wholly believable. This is the innovation that we love about Bowie: No matter what he does, he finds his own way, often a totally original path, and the result is great entertainment in some brand new flavor. He makes Thomas endearing, despite the script that often works against him, and defines a fascinating line between the species: He's incapable of being human, so he settles for being polite, civil, and accidentally adorable. In this way, he unwittingly shows humans for what they are: Paranoid dopes and crazy, backstabbing jerks.

Like all of his roles, Bowie owns it. He's childlike and out of place among humans, with that extraordinary face and all of his wondrous qualities that make for absolute sympathy.
And of course, his physical presence is captivating. This movie gives ample opportunity for study of every dip and furrow in his starved, coke-ravaged body. You know you shouldn't stare at this (it feels rude somehow to take such interest and pleasure in it) but you can't help it. He's just... Bowie. Everything about him is remarkable and beautiful, and he can wear anything - even famine - with sophistication.

He also has some great moments in the story:

Konked out in the Elevator
Probably the best sequence in the film for its dramatic content and good, straightforward direction.
A performance highlight for Bowie, who goes limp and completely dislocates with an empty, glassy staring.

He's in the car, half-snuggling with Mary Lou and half on the phone with Oliver. He's planning to settle down and build a house, but it's also time to start building the spaceship. There's a blurring of the human world and his alien past here; you can feel his confusion, and maybe he's getting too attached to this human life.

"I come from England."
A divine reading. We love. Very much.

Slurring-drunk Tommy is too cute for words. Real drunk Bowie was sometimes a handful in the '70s, but his sloppy voice melts the heart.

David Bowie is priceless. We'll love him forever, and this film captures him at such an age, with such a look, and in a time that was magical. However drug-addled and tumultuous, this was the dawn of the Berlin years, when his life was changing. He was riding fame and throwing off a golden glow that everyone could see (except maybe him). As rough as this movie is, however frustrating it can be on your first few viewings, it transports you back to '76. We like watching it just to experience The Bowie in all his sparkling youth and promise.

The Cast

Thomas Jerome Newton... (David Bowie)
Alien boy of indeterminate age and profound cuteness. Has Ziggy Stardust's skeletal frame and shock of red hair, but none of his spunk. Thomas is quiet and unassuming, a reclusive entrepreneur.

Thomas's driver (and Bowie's bodyguard at the time). Arthur seems like a nice guy but is actually a backstabber. Doesn't have much of a role except to turn on Thomas; he helps kidnap him and ends up working for the Bad Guys.

Oliver Farnsworth...(Buck Henry)
The same Buck Henry who would star with Bowie fifteen years later in "The Linguini Incident," Oliver is a Patent lawyer who helps Thomas market his ideas. Oliver is a Good Guy who becomes rich and successful because of Thomas. He wears giant coke-bottle lenses and ends up being murdered (horribly).

Whatshisname... (Whatshisname)
Oliver's assistant. He looks like Roger Moore used to. That is, he looked at the time (in the past) like Roger Moore would about ten years later (in the future), which at this time hadn't happened yet (obviously). We can never remember this guy's name. Trevor Somebody.
Whatshisname doesn't like or trust Thomas, and should be the guy who snitches him to the feds. But Roger is apparently not responsible for this, and ends up being a victim also - murdered.

Mary Lou Something... (Candy Clark)
An attractive, dopey girl who falls in love with Thomas and has lots of naked foreplay. Well-meaning but empty-headed, she accepts Thomas's eccentricities and is very stuck on him, but eventually moves on after the breakup.

Nate Bryce... (Rip Torn) A scientist who works for Thomas's company. Starts out as an ally, but turns out to be a liar and a jerkoff. Betrays Thomas and even bags Mary Lou.

Life on Mars?

We learn about the aliens through Thomas, who has flashbacks to his life on Planet Newton. He has a wife and kids there, and it's a big desert where they carry water on their backs in tanks. They also have water piping all over them, which they wear as clothes or some kind of life-support system. They don't seem to have jobs; they hike around the desert looking for water until they die.

The aliens are humanoid but don't have the accessories and detailing that humans do. They put on fake features somehow (skin-morphing ability?), so that they appear human on Earth. At one point, Thomas shows Mary Lou his true self by removing all his accessories. Even his junk and his eyes aren't real (note that at 1:24:32, Thomas doesn't even have fingernails) and this is a disturbing scene. It's hard for Bowie to look unattractive, but even he looks scary as hell with yellow, reptilian wall-eyes. He must have had to sit for many hours while the makeup people obscured all his junk and accessories with makeup.

We dunno how the aliens reproduce without junk, but the process seems to involve trampolines, gelatin, and possibly fireworks. Mary Lou can't figure it out either when she tries to get it on with Alien Thomas. She gives up and freaks out and leaves.

On the homeworld, the aliens live in a giant Churro that has been hollowed out and made into a mobile home that runs on a track. It's like a short, cross-section of a churro, and it has windows and moves like a train car. You can often tell the chronology of Thomas's flashbacks by the Churro's state of disrepair. In the beginning it looks tidy and crispy, recently-fried, and it starts up easily and zooms along the monorail track. Later on it looks crumbly and sandblasted, and doesn't seem to be running anymore.

Wacky Filmmaking

This thing is a wreck. But you can't really fault the director, because it seems to be a deliberate wreck. It's arthouse craziness because it's supposed to be, but it's the worst kind: It starts out pretty coherent and fools you into thinking that it'll just be a weird movie instead of an insane one. Thomas lands on earth, and through a series of time-collapsed edits, starts up a successful company. But then everything takes a turn for the worse.
15:44 Hits with the roughest cut imaginable: Rip Torn shows up out of nowhere, destroying any hope of normal scene transition for the rest of the movie. The plot gets complicated, there are too many players to keep track of, and the edits come even faster. Fourth Wall is obliterated at 58:46, another brutal cut at 1:12:42, and the whole movie is dotted with flashbacks of life on Thomas's home planet. These are very weird and shown out of time and sequence.

Then there's the random, unsolicited Narration (Yeah, narration! Wtf?):

Oliver begins the madness at 20:31. Yes, twenty minutes into this thing and VO starts up in the middle of a scene like he's being interviewed. But he's not. He's just talking to himself. Or maybe the audience. He knows we're here?
Mary Lou gets her turn at 35:19 - gives a tipsy introspection on life and the universal whatever.
Nate goes at 36:50, barely a minute later. Dude, I don't want to see Rip Torn's junk and I certainly don't want to hear his innermost thoughts!

All of this voice-over is pointless and truly bizarre because it only happens these three times. There's no follow-up, you never hear from these guys (or anyone) again, and the idea of Narration is completely dropped and forgotten for the rest of the film.

Then there's the actual story, which gets intricate as Thomas's company becomes a monopolizing force. Government agencies get involved, it's kidnapping, murder, and everyone somehow finds out that Thomas is an alien. Then he's a prisoner somewhere, somehow.
So, good luck with all that, kids.

Quirks, Oddities, and Stuff to Notice !

Some of these may be mentioned on the commentary or in Tevis's novel, but until then...

That Amazing Bowie

This is Tommy catching the bottle and glass so that they don't fall when Mary Lou stands up. Someone on the set (possibly Roeg) cited this for praise of Bowie's professionalism. He was so focused and methodical in the scene that he did this at least four times, catching the bottle and glass perfectly on every take.

The Horses

Seeing a horse causes Tommy to flashback to his planet, where we pan over the desert landscape. And sure enough... There are horses. How is this possible?

Coincidental Cats

There's a lot of odd symbolism in this movie (the sheep on the livestock truck, and the broken down log cabin in the beginning), but this one could just be coincidence. This marmelade kitty is shown living with Tommy and Mary Lou after they move in together. Then he's never seen again. But at the end when Mary Lou and Nate Bryce become a disgusting item (decades later), they too own a marmelade kitty.
Does this mean something? Ginger Tabby = Ginger Alien?
Maybe there were just a lot of ginger cats working in the 70s. (Ziggy included.)

The Drink

Early on, Mary Lou describes the drink, "Gin and tonic, with four cubes of ice and a slice of lime..." This becomes Tommy's staple drink and remains Mary Lou's. Years later, both are shown drinking Beefeater brand gin, and putting in exactly four cubes of ice.

Bill Shatner

The Trailer of "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is narrated by William Shatner.
This is appropriate, as he himself had fallen to Earth on the 9-year furlough between "Star Trek: The Series Cancellation" and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
During the unveiling of Thomas's spacecraft, there's also this very strange visual. It's just a moment, but Kirk almost makes a cameo.

The "Tip"?

During the breakup, Mary Lou meets with a lawyer. He tries to give her a gigantic sum of money, which seems to be severance from Tommy. But Mary Lou is crying and doesn't want the money. The lawyer then says, "Thank you, Mary Lou."
Did she actually *give* the money to him?

The Futuristic Music Player?

One of World Enterprises's products is this funky music player. We dunno how anyone would think this is a futuristic or intelligent design. It looks like a pot for making stew, a huge slow-cooker, and can you imagine the cost to manufacture? What the hell's it made of? It looks like forty pounds of stainless steel.
And it plays a little round sphere that won't stay put. That thing will roll all over the place, your cat or dog will play with it until it gets lost under the fridge, and it isn't even labeled. How are you supposed to keep track of your little spheres and know what's on them? And how are they shipped and stored? Nothing is harder to keep than round stuff; it's spatially inefficient and can't be stacked or cornered.
Frankly the whole thing is a mulligan.

Save The Date !

At 17:26 ... Bowie eats! Or appears to, at least.

At 27:14 ... Just off the elevator, Clark actually picks up Bowie ?! How?

At 27:17 ... Best nosebleed in film history? (Top three, for sure.)

At 1:08:16 ... Cover of Station to Station !

At 1:23:00 ... "...if they found out your Visa had expired??" LOL Ridiculous.

At 1:32:50 ... The only time that Tommy swears. (says "Fuck" for some reason)

At 1:58:30 ... Full frontal Bowie ! Enjoy.

The Moral is...

We think "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is supposed to be a tragedy. Thomas's family dies in the drought and he gets stranded on Earth. The last shot of this movie is Tommy sitting in an outdoor cafe, drinking himself to stupor.

But Candy Clark's idiot character makes some valid points: "What do you have on your planet that we don't have here?" Tommy loves water, TV, and booze, and Earth has plenty. And now that the wife and tater tots are dead and the Churro is broken, there's no reason at all for him to go back.
And it's hard to know exactly when his family passes away, but it seems to occur before the spaceship was even completed. So, it's tempting to blame American corporate evil and illegal strongarm tactics for the failed spaceship endeavor, but really, Thomas's plan wouldn't have worked out anyhow. We think he never would have been able to get the spaceship under way in time, fly back home, and save everyone. He did his best (A+ for Effort, truly) but it just wasn't meant to be.
Also, had Tommy stayed on his homeworld, he would have perished with the rest of his people. So really, coming to Earth saved his life.

Maybe the real message of this movie is The Futility of Best Laid Plans. We all start with big ideas and goals for our lives, but via pointlessness, chaos, and interference, we seldom accomplish anything. Many people do their best, but in the end we have no control over fate, and then we use alcohol and substances to cope with the disappointment.
Ergo, Thomas becomes human in almost every way, and he's fortunate enough to get stuck on a planet where he can medicate his depression with the soothing power of drugs. And churros.

Questions ?

How much screen time does Bowie have in this?

Tons and tons. This is a great movie for Bowie. Probably has more exposure here than any other film (with possible exception of "Just a Gigolo") and his performance is terrific. All Bowie fans need to see this film.

What about Content? Sex And Junk?

Tons and Tons and Tons of nudity. Lots of nudity. More nudity than you can shake a nudity at. So much nudity...

There's not much actual sex, but oodles of naked lounging and naked romping. Some of it is unwanted; you have to get through Rip Torn's and Bernie Casey's naked scenes. But it's worth it to see the good stuff: Bowie's equipment, and the rest of him in all of his lithe, malnourished magnificence.
(Read: "Painfully thin, but so damn good-looking that you don't even notice.")

Rating? Language?

Rated R. Somehow. Probably should be X/M for its full-frontal hoo-haws in sexual context. It's *this* close to being soft core porn.

How BAD is this movie?

It's not horrible, but it is bad. The writing, direction, and editing are off the wall.
Unless you're a big fan of weird, culty movies, you'll need to go in expecting (and forgiving) some nonsense and crap upon crap. Set your phaser on "kill" and your BowieLove to maximum, cuz you'll need all of it to endure the filler between his scenes. Always remember that you're watching it for The Man, and keep telling yourself:
"Any Bowie is Good Bowie."

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