On Being Human: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicholas Roeg)


The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicholas Roeg)

Review by Karl Wolff

Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth stars David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton as an alien, Rip Torn as Dr. Nathan Bryce, a lusty college professor, and Candy Clark as Mary-Lou, a simple, sweet-hearted girl who works as a maid in a hotel in New Mexico. Bowie runs a giant conglomerate called World Enterprises Corporation, but his actual mission is to bring back water to his arid homeworld of Anthea. What follows is a strange meandering story equal parts science fiction parable and art film. Panned by critics on its release in 1976, the film is a challenge to process and digest. It doesn’t easily lend itself to pat interpretations or spoon-feeding the audience an easily digestible moral.

As Thomas Jerome Newton, Bowie plays the part of a disillusioned corporate executive. He hides out in a New Mexico hotel, cramming his room with TVs, and falls in love with Mary-Lou. On the surface, it seems like something from the Victorian Romance playbook. But it seems like Dickens shot through with Howard Hughes (who died the same year this film came out). Newton eventually leaves New Mexico and holes up in a lakeside cottage, inviting along Dr. Bryce to assist him in developing an energy source to bring him back to Anthea. Roeg intersperses the drama on Earth with brief scenes of Anthea, a desert wasteland save for a monorail vehicle that runs on solar power. We get oblique glimpses of Newton’s humanoid alien kin. There are other scenes where alien figures jump through the air, their bodies colliding with water in acts both erotic and symbolic. Roeg style of filmmaking is poetic and allusive, at the same time propelling the narrative forward with an almost lackadaisical pace.

In the end, Newton spends too much time on Earth. Technology, booze, and women have corrupted his soul, making him forget his mission. As characters around him age and die, he remains young looking. He falls prey to the corruptions and temptations that all mankind suffers.

What does it mean to be human for Thomas Jerome Newton? In the film, he disguises himself as a human, only to be discovered by Mary-Lou. His entirely hairless alien form has reptilian eyes and comes as a shock. In the film’s final section, Newton is captured by a rival company and given a battery of medical tests. It mirrors Newton’s acquisitive nature when he ran World Enterprises Corporation. He sought to capitalize on new technologies. But he falls victim to the scientific impulse in the end, x-rayed and prodded. The scientific desire to know, understand, measure, and weigh puts Newton through a series of personal degradations. Following this sequence, Newton eventually breaks out of his prison, discovering it has been long abandoned.

This is the last essay for “On Being Human,” but I will explore three more pop cultural products when the book is released. It has been a fun project and the cumulative effect of the essays has added new dimensions to the way we look at our collective humanity. One hopes that we as a species can have sensible discussions about how to improve our sorry lot on this spinning ball of mud, fixing what needs to be fixed and nurturing the inventive spirit so we can someday visit distant stars, instead of contenting ourselves with bullet-ridden corpses on schoolyards and repressive legislation that befits the narrow, ignorant, hateful purview of a scabrous psychotic few. So, how will humanity fare?

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