More noise than signal

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

A thin, white duke-ish gentleman stumbles down a slagheap in the opening of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is also a reasonably accurate capsule summary of the overall film.

Said man is, of course, David Bowie, here playing Thomas Jerome Newton, at first glance a peculiar gentleman who sets about registering and exploiting a series of advanced technological patents, although before long, and as is implied by the title, we discover that he is, in fact, an alien, from a planet in the middle of a severe drought.

So, aided by Buck Henry’s patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth he sets up a company to build hitech contraptions, making a tonne of money that he sinks into research into space travel. Basically Elon Musk’s life story, then. He’s looking to develop a way to ship water back to his planet, but there are forces out to stop him.

Ultimately, it’s implied to be the government, who get wind of his true nature after a tip-off from Rip Torn’s Dr. Nathan Bryce, a roguish employee who had become something of a confidant to Newton.

However that only happens after Newton has worn the mask of humanity long enough to start becoming human, and falling prey to some of the same ills that have fallen many of us. He meets and forms a romantic relationship with Candy Clark as Mary-Lou, who introduces him to concepts like alcohol and television, to which Newton becomes addicted, which is more thoroughly encouraged by his captors in the final stretch of the film.

There is, on paper, not a lot of narrative to stretch over the two and a quarter hours of film – have we mentioned films were paced very differently in the seventies – but as with a good few of the films on tonight’s roster the narrative is largely a crowbar to get into the character’s brain.

In the main, this is a study of alienation – quite literally, I suppose – and isolation, with a pretty incredible turn from Bowie, although there’s an argument that he’s playing a very thinly veiled version of himself in the film.

There’s a few aspects that haven’t aged well – the alien planet’s train system in particular, although to be scrupulously fair I’m sure even at the time it looked like a rejected balsa wood primary school production castoff. However The Man Who Fell To Earth isn’t particularly concerned with any special effects around the “falling to Earth” part of things, and is rather more focused on the man himself, and how that reflects on wider humanity. That, it seems, is more or less ageless, to our eternal discredit.

That, combined with a striking visual style, complex characters who swing between sympathetic and obnoxious, solid performances and an intriguingly enough unfolded narrative, makes this worth catching up with should you not already have done so.