A science fiction classic twice over: The oddity that is The Man who fell to Earth

Gautham Shenoy August 26, 2016 6 min

 

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Of all the many science fiction films ever made, there is none as oddly satisfying as The Man Who Fell to Earth. But it takes two to tango, and the book completes the film. And vice versa. And not in the usual sense of ‘the book is better than the movie.’ Or vice versa.

Let’s begin with the movie, which is returning to theatres this year after a glorious-looking 4K restoration going by the trailer, on occasion of its 40th anniversary. An undisputed cult classic, and often hailed as science fiction’s last, great bold experiment, The Man Who Fell to Earth was the English director Nicolas Roeg’s way of turning science fiction into art. And like some of the greatest works of art, the film puts the burden of understanding on the viewer, without ever making it feel so. The movie also owes its cult status in no small part to the space oddity and starman, David Bowie, the artist extraordinaire, who in his first starring role plays Thomas Jerome Newton, the titular man who fell to earth.

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Meet Thomas Jerome Newton aka Tommy, the humanoid alien, in the scene where we first get to see his face with all of his make-up, disguise, contact lenses and his distinctive orange hair.

The premise is simple enough. It is the story of an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, hoping to save his dying race on a distant planet by shipping water from here back home. A stranger in a strange world, Tommy uses his knowledge of alien technology to patent some ground-breaking and futuristic tech, building a business empire called World Enterprises, with which he hopes to raise enough capital to build a ship to take him back home with water and reunite with his family. Along the way he meets Mary Lou, a hotel waitress who becomes his companion, and Nathan Bryce, a womanising college professor who joins World Enterprises as a technician and learns his secret.

By this time, Tommy is slowly getting seduced into apathy by the numbing assault of human culture in the form of alcohol and television. But nonetheless, he manages to build his spaceship but just before his voyage, is kidnapped by the government, to be experimented upon. Years pass, Tommy never ages while the rest of the world around him grows old. He doesn’t notice, addicted as he is to television and booze. When he does manage to walk out of captivity, all he can do is record an album containing a message to his wife that he hopes she will someday listen to (having given up on his original mission, we presume) and fallen into depression and alcoholism.

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Three depictions of the Man who Fell to Earth: The original poster for the movie, the cover of the movie’s Criterion Collection DVD, and the cover used for the fortieth anniversary 4K restoration.

The premise seems pretty straightforward, but this summary does gross injustice to the film, as any description of it by anyone will inevitably fall short. Because Roeg, in his characteristic way of editing his films in disjunctive and semi-coherent ways, turns this story into something just about resembling a plot. Stripping the film of all but its most elemental narrative information to create a fascinating visual and aural feast, with ample (gratuitous?) and well-placed yet purposeful nudity, surreal scenes, dreamlike sequences, dialogue that is sparse and brilliant use of music. The plot becomes subservient to the emotion, which makes it both frustrating and fascinating. And because of this, and due to its two-hour-plus runtime, this is one sci-fi film that may test your patience, but one that at no point insults your intelligence. This film is most sci-fi when it tries to be more human.

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Elevating the film is the great soundtrack, and the performances by Candy Clarke and Rip Torn are pitch-perfect (pun intended). But stealing the show by far is David Bowie, who does a lot by just being himself in this, the beginning of his Thin White Duke persona. Bowie doesn’t come across so much as an actor playing an alien, but rather an alien playing at trying to be human.

But for all of its enduring and endearing appeal, seen purely as a film – and not an ambitious art experiment – Roeg’s approach of putting emotion above plot leaves a lot of gaps in the narrative, some of which cannot be filled with just presumptions and assumptions. What really happened to Tommy’s home planet and why was only he chosen from his alien race to come to Earth? What explains his idiosyncratic behaviour and tastes? Why does he start drinking for no good reason after saying he prefers and drinks only water? Why did Tommy give up his mission? Or did he really? The film is a veritable feast, but questions like these leave you hungry. As ex-guitarist and singer of The Clash Mick Jones sang in ‘E=MC2’, the song by Big Audio Dynamite, while referring to the film, “Space guy fell from the sky; Scratched my head and wondered why.”

Don’t waste your time scratching your head and/or wondering why, because this is where the book that the movie was based on comes in. Walter Tevis’ 1963 science fiction classic of the same name.

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Select covers of the book’s various editions: First Edition cover from Gold Medal Books, the 1976 Pan edition which shows David Bowie in the movie as painted by his friend and painter George Underwood (also this post’s Lead Image) and the Penguin Modern Classics edition which uses a still from the film showing Tommy in his true alien form.

There are things that the movie barely addresses – and for good reason – but that are crucial to the book, widely considered to be amongst the finest science fiction novels of the 20th century. Tommy’s backstory and circumstance makes his indifference more understandable, and explains with great depth his alienation (no pun intended). For starters, there is no sex in the book and the woman that Tommy takes up with is neither called Mary Lou nor is she a hotel waitress.

Walter Tevis said that this is the most personal of his books, and so it is; a very disguised autobiography cloaked in science fiction. And it shows. In the way in which Tevis – in his clear, uncomplicated prose – takes us on the journey of Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien who wanted to believe and fails. Who became all too human but only in its weaknesses, failings and absolute aloneness. What happens to Tommy during one of the experiments carried out on him during his captivity – not once as in the movie, but two times – is heart-breaking. The ending, more so. Yes, Tevis’ novel may be more explicit, but it is no less poetic.

Should you choose to only read the novel or just watch the movie, your experience of this story in that particular medium would still be complete, but following up one with the other makes it more fulfilling. And that’s what I’d recommend.

But before you go off to watch The Man who Fell to Earth and read The Man Who Fell to Earth (or vice versa; both work), do take a moment to tell us what you think of this post and of New Worlds Weekly. Share your opinions and suggestions in the comments section below, or tweet to us @FactorDaily with the hashtag #NWWonFD. I look forward to reading your comments.

On that note, until next week and beyond – Live Long and Prosper (and vice versa).


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