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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Man Who Fell To Earth

The last sci-fi film to review for the year 1976 was the enigmatic The Man Who Fell To Earth (MWFE). Released in May of 1976, this was the big film role for equally enigmatic signer/song-writer David Bowie. Paul Mayersberg created the screenplay, based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name. “Art” director Nicolas Roeg crafted the visuals. Between Mayersberg and Roeg, the film takes Tevis’ premise and puts a thoroughly 70s spin on it. An alien comes to earth from his dying world, but earth corrupts him.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Note: Roeg uses a rather non-linear style, with many intercuts and overlaps. This is a reassembled synopsis.
After a splash in a mountain lake, a lone man stumbles into a small town. He pawns some gold rings to raise cash. With the cash, he hires a patent attorney, Oliver Farnsworth. The alien, Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) has several advanced concepts which Farnsworth patents. The result are many revolutionary consumer products, such as an instant (digital?) camera, and modular music (mp3) player. Newton’s World Enterprises business makes him a multimillionaire. He applies his millions to a space vehicle project, employing Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) a bored and philandering college professor to be his fuel scientist. The fragmented and suggested backstory is the Newton came from another planet that is suffering from massive drought. His plan is to either take water to his planet, or bring his family (wife and two children) to earth. While in the remote wilds of New Mexico (the rocket base location), he crosses paths with Mary-Lou. She falls in love with him. He (as a married alien) is intrigued with her. They begin a dysfunctional relationship (she drinks too much, he doesn’t care enough). He eventually reveals his true alien-ness to Mary-Lou, who freaks out. She gets over it, though it does not salvage what relationship they had. Shadowy forces (government and/or competitor businesses) bribe Newton’s driver to arrange for Newton’s capture. Doctors perform all sorts of pointless tests and procedures on Newton. Shadowy thugs kill Farnsworth. While in captivity, Newton’s space project falls into disrepute and is scuttled. Many years later, Mary-Lou and Bryce get together. Bryce tracks down the elusive Newton based on clues in a record album Newton recorded. He finds Newton, still rich, but doing nothing beyond drowning his despair. He’s stuck on earth, never getting back. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
MWFE is actually a fairly disturbing film, rather than fun. Yet there are still snippets of interest. The premise can be thought-provoking.

Cultural Connection
Generation X — MWFE captures some of the mood of “Generation X” before concept was in popular circulation. Gen Xers, born between 1964 and 1980 (dates vary depending on authors), were the latchkey kids. They grew up on TV, often because their working parents (Baby Boomers) let their careers come first. Generalized to be loners, skeptical, cynical and prone to despondency (as opposed to hopeful), Gen X kids were more prone to solitary video games than playing outside in the dirt. Disaffected Gen X youth fueled punk rock rebelliousness, but were also prone to become solitary entrepreneurs. They inherited their Baby Boom parents “free” approach to sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, but lacked the easily identified target of rebellion their parents had. MWFE is a Gen X film with Newton as the tragic Gen-X archetype.

Based on the Book — In 1963, Walter Tevis published a sci-fi novel about an alien who comes to earth, seeking to save his people. The movie follows the book, in some details, and in some general ways, but with some notable modernizations. In the book, Newton’s home world, Anthea, suffered many nuclear wars which produced a planetary drought that has killed off most of the inhabitants. Book Newton wants to build a rocket to bring the remaining Antheans to Earth. In the movie, Newton’s world (never named) is just a desert. No mention made of nuclear wars. Movie Newton’s goal is never made clear. He may be trying to take water to his planet, or ferry his family to earth. The book takes place in Kentucky, with the female lead being Betty-Jo, not Mary-Lou in New Mexico. The undefined shadowy figures of the movie are the CIA and FBI in the book. In the book, Newton tries to be a savior to both his people and Earth — by preventing nuclear war, via their super-intelligence. Both book and film end with Newton failing in his mission as savior. The book was more flagrantly partisan, in that the “scandal” over Newton, Democrats lose power to Republicans, who it is presumed, will push Earth into the nuclear apocalypse. The film did not dabble in politics. Newton just failed to save his family.

Reverse Abduction — An interesting twist on the tired alien-abduction trope, has earthlings “abducting” the alien and subjecting him to all sorts of vague and terrible medical procedures. (why was everyone so fascinated with Bowie’s nipples?) The alien is released from abduction, but no one will believe his story. He is alone with his experience.

Failed Savior — As a sort of noir flip-side of the Klaatu motif, Newton “falls” to earth, originally to save the people of his dying world (this also being an old trope). IN the book, he is simultaneously trying to save earthlings from nuking ourselves. Instead of standing strong, like Klaatu, he succumbs to earth vices (mostly gin, sex and television) and loses his motivation to do much more than be pitiful. In MWFE, the alien is neither hero, nor villain. He becomes a victim.

Art-Porn — Roeg has a reputation for artsy directing, but his overuse of naked bodies and exaggerated fake sex often strays over the line of artistic statement, to budget porn. When the naked/sex is there, pretty much just for the sake of having it there, it’s more porn than art. The final fling between Newton and Mary-Lou, with the bizarre chrome pistol prop tries to be more artsy than porn, though given both character’s development (estrangement), a gleeful hedonist fling with odd toys doesn’t fit. As art-porn, it didn’t have to fit.

They’re After Our Women — As with the classic old trope, the alien takes up with a pretty earth girl. Mary-Lou is attractive, if not particularly deep. Newton keeps her, rather than falls in love with her (in classic Gen X form), but as with many other sci-fi films in which the alien male wants (or “has”) the earth female, it is just assumed that the “mechanics” would be identical (enough). Learning English and earth customs from television is plausible, but functional sex? Pretty thin ice. Note too, that between Mayersberg’s script and Roeg’s direction, women come off pretty badly. They’re either shallow bumpkins, or “letcherous little girls”.  No noble "modern" women here.

Bottom line? MWFE is a complicated film with noir tendencies. It has it’s ardent fans. It has it’s harsh critics. The film benefits from the viewer knowing the story in the book. The film’s story can be seen as a sort of film-poem about Gen X, for whom the world was too-much-TV, cheap/easy sex, and too much booze. Also, subtly about the loneliness and despair, even in victory (Newton was amazingly wealthy, but never happy). As a sci-fi film, there are snippets of aliens on another world, but these stay fragmented and distant. MWFE isn’t for everyone. Given the frequent nudity and fake sex, it’s not a good choice for work or family night. Viewers who dislike non-linear art films, will likely be annoyed. Still, some rave about the film.


Randall Landers said...

The non-linear approach is too distracting for me to enjoy this film, as many times as I've tried.

Nightowl said...

Hi Randall,
Yes, the non-linear style is harder to watch, I suppose in a similar way that poetry is often harder to follow than prose. I also think Roeg's film really needed the viewer to already know what was going on (i.e. knew the book) or much of what was happening came across as total non-sequeturs. In that sense, the film falls short of its potential for sci-fi greatness.

Anonymous said...

I dislike remakes as a rule, but I'd really like to see a new version of this story, one more faithful to Tevis' book. Best wishes, Zokko