The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Nicolas Roeg | 2hr 19min

Perhaps the first thing we notice about David Bowie’s off-beat, androgynous alien, Newton, is how remarkably human he is. There is no suggestion of him being an extra-terrestrial in the title The Man Who Fell to Earth, nor do many of the people he comes across suspect that his biology is any different to theirs. In stark contradiction, the second thing we might realise is his innate, irreconcilable foreignness. With his mismatching eyes, blazing red hair, alternative fashion sense, and British accent setting him apart from the rest of New Mexico, the social concept of the ‘Other’ is manifested here as a lone, tangible figure. Though we get the odd glimpse of his true visage – a white, hairless figure with yellow eyes and vertical pupils – it is primarily Bowie’s natural, otherworldly presence which reveals the sheer distance between Newton and his Earthly surroundings, literalising the alienation felt by citizens of a material, modern world.

Quite unusually for the science-fiction genre, The Man Who Fell to Earth is not based on high-concept hypotheticals or dazzling production designs, but rather seeks to understand its central alien character from a sociological perspective, built through an eccentric array of montages, flashbacks, and cutaways. There is no surprise that this is the work of Nicolas Roeg, whose piecing together of disjointed visual fragments picks up where Jean-Luc Godard’s avant-garde editing left off, and goes on to assemble an image of existential isolation within maximalist environments.

Roeg has a commitment to avant-garde visuals, turning his actors towards the camera and stretching their faces in mirrors.

Newton is further than ever from his home planet of sprawling, arid deserts, and though Roeg’s exotic mise-en-scene is notably bizarre with strange train-like hovels and a particularly striking spaceship interior of protruding, black cylinders, intricate world building is not the aim here. Instead, it is Earth that becomes the playground of our exploration, experienced through the eyes of an alien whose soul is torn between two worlds. Finding and bringing water back to his drought-stricken home planet is Newton’s goal here, and although he encounters an abundance of it when he first comes crashing down in a New Mexico lake, it doesn’t take long for him to get side-tracked. On Earth, this precious, life-giving resource is taken for granted, while the luxuries of television sets and alcohol tempt its people into escapist fantasies, paradoxically uniting them under an indulgent disconnection.

World building is not necessarily Roeg’s main focus here, but he still crafts bizarre alien scenery in Newton’s many flashbacks.
Even greater production design in Newton’s spaceship, looking like a wine cellar of black bottles with a giant, white orb in its centre.

Newton is not impervious to this either. For all the wholesome facets of humanity he absorbs with an open mind, he equally keeps falling deeper into its cheap decadence, even going so far as to set up an entire room of television sets for maximum exposure to the outside world. Animal documentaries play next to comedy shows and old Hollywood movies, forming a kaleidoscopic backdrop of sorts behind his human lover, Mary Lou, as she furiously chastises him for his indulgence, and is ultimately drowned out by their incomprehensible noise.

Rooms and walls lined with televisions, packing these scenes with a great deal of social commentary without hitting it too hard.

Within Newton’s mind, this ability to perceive so much information at once is simultaneously a remarkable neurological gift and a crippling weakness, shifting his attention away from his original goal and bouncing it around splinters of memories, diversions, and worldly pleasures. Just as montages cut rapidly between the various images flickering across his television sets, so too do they tenderly unfold his new, settled life with Mary Lou, seeing them play together naked and seek out his home planet with a telescope. Red lens flares and camera zooms often unexpectedly punctuate these scenes too, developing a curiously agitated aesthetic that Roeg blends well with his mix of jump cuts and long, dreamy dissolves, pushing his violently jagged pacing to its limit. With several sequences displaying a skilful intercutting between locations, characters, and timelines to top this off, his bold exercise in avant-garde style and structure effectively matches the erratic mind of an alien who can barely settle on a single train of thought.

Red lens flares become a formal motif tied to Newton’s alien character.
The greatest feature of Roeg’s film – the editing, diverse in the techniques he employs but always potent.

In this way, further connections are built between Newton’s culture and the one he is discovering on Earth, drawing surreal parallels between human and alien sex as vaguely common ground. Upon discovering her lover’s true identity, Mary Lou initiates awkward, passionless foreplay with him, though Newton’s mind can’t help drifting back to grotesque images of his species’ version of the act, seeing pale, extra-terrestrial bodies flipping around each other and drip with a viscous, white fluid. Through Roeg’s inventive collision of these sexual rituals, we understand how the differences between both races can be reconciled on a basic, biological level, and yet the moment that the truth of his identity comes light, there is no recovering the connection they shared before. As Mary Lou suffers a breakdown over this realisation, Roeg swaps out his regular lens for a fish-eye effect, briefly warping what was once a familiar space into a twisted, extra-terrestrial world.

Skilful cross-cutting between human and alien sex, tying both species closer together.
A fish-eye lens as Mary Lou breaks down in the kitchen, perhaps seen through Newton’s alien eyes.

Much like the ‘human zoo’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey where Dave spends the final years of his life, the stark, white room where Newton is ultimately captured and studied by scientists becomes a prison of sorts, passing several decades in what feels like minutes. Where Dave ages and eventually evolves into a new life form though, Newton’s fate as a perpetually youthful, unchanging being carries sadder implications. He continues to indulge in the alcohol and entertainment of the human world, and his contact lenses are even fused to his alien eyes by accident during one unfortunate operation, keeping him from appearing as his natural self ever again. Ultimately though, the lonely space he occupies between the two species is impossible to ignore. The title of Roeg’s film may suggest a science-fiction tale of great wonder, but with this ending, it describes a darker, more urgent social allegory – this is a man who could have been great, but fell to Earth’s worldly distractions, cheaply imitating a life he can never truly embrace.

Newton’s prison designed much like the ‘human zoo’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey, seeing the decades fly past in what feels like a short expanse of time for our protagonist.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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