in Criterion Month

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

When you’re doing a project like this one, especially if you’re doing it the way I am, it’s easy to takes movies for granted. This month I’ve already watched eight other movies, and in most cases, written up reviews immediately after their credits rolled. When you’re watching some of the world’s finest cinema, it’s really not that hard to do; you just summarize the plot, comment on the themes or the film’s impact, and Bob’s your uncle. It such a streamlined process I didn’t even think to talk about how comforting it was to see familiar actors last night in The Last Picture Show, a rare gift in this mostly director-driven practice. But it all comes to a smashing halt when you watch something truly experimental, like The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Going into this movie, I just knew that it was David Bowie’s first starring role and that it was celebrated by a lot of sci fi greats, like Philip K. Dick, Michael Fassbender, and Guns N’ Roses. I even forgot things like Rip Torn being in the movie, or that stills from it were used as the covers to Station to Station and the Berlin trilogy’s Low, which is also home to music that Bowie meant for this film. That’s deliberate, even though I don’t think spoilers are a big deal, if I know I’m going to watch a movie anyway, I don’t bother looking anything up ahead of time. But, double-edged sword time, that also makes gathering my thoughts all the more difficult.

What I can tell you, like I alluded above, is the gist of the plot. Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) is a humanoid alien who has come to Earth disguised as a man in search of water to bring back to his home world. He partners with a patent lawyer, Farnsworth (Buck Henry), to start a massive conglomerate so that Thomas may finance the building of a spaceship to take him home. Along the way, he begins a relationship with a lonely girl named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) and a clever scientist, Dr. Bryce (Torn) gives up his womanizing ways to begin working for Thomas. But a mysterious, enigmatic man running the world’s largest conglomerate can’t help but attract some unwanted attention…

Look, I’m not an idiot. This movie is about how modern vices erode the soul. Television is shown as Thomas’ first addiction, and by god, there’s even a character named Farnsworth, surely a reference to Philo Farnsworth, the man credited with inventing the TV. Thomas is seduced by other Earthly pleasures; money, sex, alcohol, and it all kicks his ass. There’s a progression to it that’s not dissimilar to how a typical Earthling might go through these problems. Thomas’ desperation to get back to his family might even suggest that love is the first, and most insidious, addiction in the human experience.

But also, there’s a lot going on here, both in the visuals and the editing, that make it pretty tricky to feel like I’ve really gathered my thoughts within an hour of watching the film. I know I liked the movie, so I’ll stick with three stars for now. I wish that David Bowie had been able to contribute to the soundtrack, but I’m not going to knock the very American work of John Philips, of The Mamas & the Paps. And I’ll praise director Nicolas Roeg, cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, and editor Graeme Clifford for showing how alien a pale, British drug addict can seem in sunny New Mexico.