‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ or — Close Encounters of the Silly Kind?

As I tend to find Nicolas Roeg’s films inadvertently silly I was wondering how long it would take until ‘The Man Who fell to Earth’ (1976) had me roaring with laughter. Turns out it didn’t do too badly as it made it all the way to the 18 minute mark before I was doubled-up in hysterics.

Thomas Newton (David Bowie) is an alien who has come to Earth because his planet needs water. Unfortunately he now seems to be stuck here but by patenting futuristic inventions he is able to acquire vast wealth so he can build a rocket ship to return home. The main question is — can he return home before external, or internal, forces prevent him from doing so?

Roeg tells this story with his typical eye for striking imagery, smart editing and a clever use of time where all obvious narrative linkage is removed; this movie “flows” but we still have to work to piece it together. The visual story telling here is challenging and impressive.

Shame the same can’t be said for the dialogue which is often appalling and frequently plain laughable!

Most of this is embodied in the form of Rip Torn who plays a cynical university professor with a penchant for fucking his 18 year old students, usually in toe-curlingly embarrassing sex montages that are painful to sit through. Then one day he wakes up and declares that he has lost all interest in fucking 18 year old students because his “mind had developed a libido of its own.”

This is when I started laughing because what with Bowie’s alien trying to return to his home world whilst a priapic lecturer comes out with statements like the above the film started resembling ‘Mac and Me’ (1988) if it had been written by Philip Roth!

It’s also the self-serious way this drivel is delivered, too. At one point Buck Henry, whilst talking about the New Mexico desert, says “You’ll like it here. It has a lot of…” Go on! Say it! We’re waiting! “…space.” There we go! What other word was it going to be to hammer than particular point home?

Then there’s the bit when, in a fit of violent rage, Newton upturns a tray of freshly baked cookies into the air leading to the slow motion destruction of these baked treats, sort of what the climax of ‘Zabriskie Point’ (1970) would’ve been like if Antonioni had used some Rich Tea biscuits instead of a house.

Then there’s the moment when Newton buys his lover a telescope so they can look at spunky solar flares together before having sex, although that’s nowhere NEAR as stupid as the gun/sex scene they have later where they cavort about naked firing handguns into each other’s faces at point blank range. “But what about your hearing?!” I kept shouting at my TV. “Put in some ear-plugs at least, you idiots!” But no, they just shoot off rounds merrily at each other for no discerni… oh, I get it. It’s an homage to the silent film ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903) and is in no way connected to the actual story of this film and is simply Roeg shoving his “cineliteracy” down our throats. Christ.

It’s not all laughably preposterous and pretentious, though (well, actually, it pretty much is but I guess I’d better say something positive). There’s a fantastic cut from a man being hurled off a roof to a man diving into a swimming pool that’s a perfect example of Roeg and his editor at their best. There’s also a striking sequence involving Newton’s rocket launch and the attendant press coverage which rivals the sort of documentary vitality of Peter Watkins achieves.

When the movie sticks to interesting subjects — the effects of technology on society, TV as radiation, corporate intrigue — it really works and many of the shots of scientific installations throb with both an allure and dread of progress. Yet it’s the way these images pour into one another that might be the most captivating aspect of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, possibly because everything else had me roaring with laughter (yes, I even laughed at his little alien kids).

By the time the film was finishing I had the feeling that rather than being a film about alien life viewing Earth through a detached lens or whatever that the real point it might be making could be something to do with storytelling and the sacrifice often involved in such a process. Maybe. I dunno. Either that or it’s simply nothing more than a pretentious version of the TV show ‘ALF’. I mean, they’re both about red-haired aliens who make their home on Earth with hilarious consequences, right?

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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