Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976)

Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976)

“Get out of my mind — all of you! Leave my mind alone!”

When an alien (David Bowie) arrives on Earth in search of a way to transport water back to his desert-like home planet, he befriends a patent lawyer (Buck Henry) eager to make money with him, a people-pleasing maid (Candy Clark) who falls in love with him, and a scientist (Rip Torn) willing to help him build his space ship; but Bowie quickly descends into a world of addictions and vices, making his chances of returning home ever slimmer as time passes.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Aliens
  • Candy Clark Films
  • David Bowie Films
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Nicolas Roeg Films
  • Rip Torn Films
  • Science Fiction

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “flawed but fascinating science-fiction film” by Nicolas Roeg, “adapted by Paul Mayersburg from Walter Tevis’s novel,” is “a variation on The Wizard of Oz; like another variation, E.T., it’s about how three people — Farnsworth [Henry], scientist Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), and Newton’s [Bowie’s] lover-companion, Mary-Lou (well played by quirky Candy Clark) — try to help a stranded alien return home.

However, unlike the two other titles, “this is an unhappy film, an old-fashioned fairytale for those adults who read Jonathan Swift and believe that our world, and those who run it, can be cold, cruel, and unfair.” It’s also “for those who remember the Grimm stories about characters who fall from grace (Newton’s ‘fall’ to earth signifies his descent into purgatory) and are punished (how Newton suffers).” Sadly, Bowie’s Newton becomes “a man in exile”: he is “infected by the earthlings he feels superior to and starts acting like [a] depressed, unfulfilled, heavy-drinking, domesticated [human].”

In his Cult Movies 2 essay, Peary points out that “as in other Roeg films — Walkabout (1971), Performance (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), Bad Timing (1980), [and] eureka! (1983) — we have a character who finds himself in a completely strange environment/situation;” and “by casting singers like Mick Jagger, Art Garfunkel, and David Bowie, Roeg figured their discomfort from moving from the stage to the screen would transfer to their characters.” To that end, “Bowie gives an appropriately subdued, sympathetic performance”: “with his orange hair, great height, and anemic look, [he] does indeed seem like an alien” — and his “birdlike features actually contribute to our empathy for Newton, who, unlike the muscular Atlas, must bear the weight of his world on shoulders that are brittle.”

This is most definitely an enigmatic and sobering film, yet a surprisingly absorbing one as well. While it’s slow-moving at times and leaves one despairing for the protagonist, we remain authentically curious to see what might happen next. I won’t be watching this one again (at least not any time soon), but I think it should be seen once by all film fanatics. (Note that the novel was just remade into a T.V. series co-starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Bill Nighy, which I haven’t seen.)

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • David Bowie as Newton
  • Candy Clark as Mary-Lou
  • Buck Henry as Oliver Farnsworth
  • Anthony B. Richmond’s cinematography

  • Other-worldly costumes and special effects

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite and a unique sci-fi flick.


  • Cult Movie

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


3 thoughts on “Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976)

  1. A once-must for its cult status (though I’m not a wildly enthusiastic fan). As posted 12/21/14 in ‘Revival House of Camp & Cult’ (fb):

    “Get out of my mind! All of you! Leave my mind alone!”

    ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’: Apparently those who saw this film in its initial release (like I did), saw a hack job. At the time, the film was, thus, labeled “incomprehensible”. (In a DVD interview, Candy Clark tells us she was so floored by the cut version that she didn’t think she could go on a promotion tour for it – since she felt it was nothing like what it was intended to be.)

    Now in a very nicely enhanced blu-ray from Criterion, ‘The Man…’ isn’t what one would call ‘crystal clear’ – even with restored footage. Not that you can’t follow it, but you do have to pick up on inferences (in some cases, you do need to be sharp for some very key points).

    Nicolas Roeg is not a director who resonates a whole lot with me. His movies seem over-wrought (and too long; or feel too long). Which is not to say they’re bad – but they appeal to a particular mind-set; to people focused on visuals (Roeg spent years as a DP) over narrative.

    They also tend to be cold and ambivalent. So they’re great for those who like that sort of thing. I do to a degree – but Roeg has a way of wallowing in his presentation, which can frustrate me and get in the way of what I’m trying to follow.

    That said, along with the basic premise of an alien being freaked out by and done in by America, I do like a number of sequences here, and the performances are fine. (I now know Buck Henry is playing a gay man – that didn’t register before.)

  2. It’s interesting it didn’t register for you about Buck Henry’s character until this more recent viewing.

    I didn’t mention it in my overview, but his glasses are REALLY something — and I’m reminded of them as I’m rewatching “Blade Runner” (1982) now and seeing super-thick glasses yet again on one of the “powerful” characters. I guess that was a trope for awhile.

  3. Maybe Henry’s sexuality wasn’t as apparent in the original, truncated version in theaters. Alas, I can’t go back to find out.

    A particular ‘flash’ was in in the ’80s.

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