The Man Who Fell To Earth


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Man Who Fell To Earth
"Full of dazzling images."

Nicolas Roeg's epic story of an alien who loses his way on Earth is such an enormous, sprawling and complex piece of work that it's difficult to know where to begin. On the surface it's a simple tale, yet it has mythic overtones which reach far back through history and deep into our subconscious whilst remaining just as relevant to rock 'n' roll. It is a tale of cultural imperialism, of the innocent corrupted by the city, of the addict sacrificing his dreams, of the rock 'n' roll suicide. David Bowie is perfectly cast as its hero who, alien though he may be, comes to represent something completely human.

Arriving alone on our planet, Thomas Jerome Newton (the only name by which he is ever known) has only a string of gold rings, his wits, and his knowledge of technology far surpassing our own. From this he creates a business empire with one initially discreet aim - to carry water back to his homeworld and to the family he seems to have loved. Yet in the process of undertaking his quest, Mr Newton has discovered alcohol, Earth women, and all the temptations of power and luxury. He has changed in some ineffable way. His lover, Mary Lou, seems to think he has become less human, but the way he interacts with others would suggest the opposite. Though he will always be an outsider, he easily acquires human failings.

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Falling under the romantic spell of his own failure, Mr Newton becomes gradually less distinct, and it is here that Roeg's film really starts to do something clever. As he loses his grip, he loses the quality of genius which has, more than anything, made people consider him alien. Suddenly his real nature and origins become less certain. Is he simply deluded? Can anyone tell anymore? There are shades here of Roeg's other great rock 'n' roll opus, Performance, yet here the violence is essentially internal. Questions are raised about the connections we make between genius and madness whilst exploiting both.

With its necessarily slow pace, The Man Who Fell To Earth may frustrate some viewers and seem inaccessible to others, though it is full of dazzling images and striking individual scenes which will grab your attention. In its time it fell foul of the censor with its aggressive sex and a scene in which the heroine is so frightened she pisses herself; these seem mild today, yet they still serve to humanise the characters. Stunningly photographed throughout, this is a film which uses visual beauty as a metaphor for the seductiveness of a world which, though technologically behind, is culturally much too much for the simple morality of its protagonist. It will seduce you too, if you let it. It will haunt you regardless.

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2008
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The spectacular yet melancholy story of an alien from a dying planet who comes to Earth in search of water but indulges a little too much.
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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Writer: Paul Mayersberg, based on the book by Walter Tevis.

Starring: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey, Jackson D. Kane

Year: 1976

Runtime: 139 minutes

Country: UK

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