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Man Who Fell to Earth, The

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (1976). British Lion/A Cinema V Release. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Written by Paul Mayersberg, based on The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis. Cast includes David Bowie, Candy Clark, Buck Henry and Rip Torn. 140 minutes; first US showing cut to 118 minutes. Colour.

In this UK film set in the USA, the clear-cut narrative of Tevis's evocative novel – about an Alien who comes to Earth to build a spacecraft large enough to transport his native race away from his own dying world – is replaced by a nonlinear structure that, in the familiar Roeg manner, shifts backwards and forwards in time, reflecting the psychic Time Travel of which the alien is capable. David Bowie as the frail, humanoid Mysterious Stranger whose contact with the harsh human world corrupts him is excellent, as is Candy Clarke as the sad, funny woman who befriends him.

The film is visually strong (Roeg was earlier a fine cameraman) but has been regarded by some as wilfully obscure, in part because of the rather literary complexity of its allusions (many to the painting of the fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder [circa 1525-1569], some to the Fall of Man) and the symbolism (occasionally heavy-handed) of its visual juxtapositions and imagery. All becomes much clearer on second viewing. Some sequences, including that showing serried ranks of television sets with which the lonely alien attempts to barricade himself from direct human experience, are very powerful indeed. The theme of an alien having his Identity effectively stolen from him by us – the reverse of the usual – is remorselessly followed through. The Man Who Fell to Earth has worn very well and is regarded as an sf classic.

The film should not be confused with a 1987 made-for-tv movie (MGM) of the same book, starring Lewis Smith as the alien and Wil Wheaton as a troubled teenager; executive producer David Gerber, teleplay by Richard Kletter, directed by Robert J Roth. This soft-centred version alters the plot considerably to give a banal moral, drops all reference to the alien's corruption, and imports much sentimentality. A better Television sequel to the original book and film, set 50 years later, is The Man Who Fell To Earth (2022). [PN]


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