The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) (R)
Warning: Nerd alert!
I read Walter Tevis' The Man Who Fell to Earth right before I saw Nicolas Roeg's film adaption and it must have been one of the worst decisions I've ever made. I loved the novel, finding it both rich in detail and story—and that being said, hated the movie with an undying passion for its laughable lines and stupid (for I can find no other word for it) representation of a fine piece of a literature.
The movie begins with Thomas Newton (David Bowie) falling to earth. He is an alien from the planet Anthea (though the film never gives a name for his home planet) and he's come to Earth in search of water. His home planet is experiencing a drought...but the film is so immature that it doesn't stop to think how the other Antheans will get to Earth. In the novel, Newton's sole mission was to build a ferry to bring others from his planet to Earth...in the film, we don't really know what's going on.
Roeg uses a surrealist and blindingly complex editing process to enrage the viewer and to that extent the movie is a smashing success.
I give you the story of three characters as from the novel: Thomas Newton, an alien whose humanity is a fierce part of his true self; Nathan Bryce, a scientist who become obsessed with the inventions of Newton; and Betty Jo, a simple Kentucky woman who happens to be in the right place at the wrong time.
Once on Earth, Newton has to find someway of making all the money to construct the ferry, so he becomes a hugely successful business man with the help of a patent lawyer. In the movie, we don't know why he wants to make so much money...but there you have it, he becomes rich.
Newton's body is unaccustomed to Earth, an elevator breaks his legs and he prefers the cold. This, naturally, is waved aside at the end of the film because who need permanent character traits? Roeg says pshaw to logic.
Nathan Bryce is a man of deep curiosity. When Newton starts making loads of money off of his brilliant inventions, it triggers something in Bryce. He starts investigating Newton and is positive from the first moment he sees self-developing film that Newton is an alien of some sort...his mission is to find out if his assumptions are correct.
Betty Jo is in the elevator when it snaps Newton's legs in half, she helps him recover and he offers her a paid position as his helper. She is an alcoholic which fuels Newton's spiraling collapse into addiction.
This is the all from the book: now let's look at the movie.
Thomas Newton is an alien who doesn't care about his wife and kids he left on his planet. Sure we get what seems like hours of flashbacks where the good woman and her progeny teeter around like penguins on the south pole...the result is comedic gold laced with a hint of "Schindler's List"—it's atrocious to watch. While his family is dying of dehydration on their desert planet, Newton finds himself holed up with a very attractive girl in a hotel (they changed the name from Betty Jo to Mary-Lou). Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) is nothing like Betty Jo, she's pretty, skinny, and only suffers from alcoholism when the story calls for it. Here, Clark gives one of the worst performances ever on screen. Her screamy, teary voice is enough to make anyone want to punch their television. She and Newton start a highly sexual relationship even though he's still got a wife and kids depending on him for survival. Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayesberg have altered every point of the novel, expecting the audience to empathize with the biggest jerk among jerks.
The biggest corruption of the novel comes with Nathan Bryce. In the book, he was a somewhat reclusive, altogether brilliant, highschool chemistry professor who sought out the unknown. In the movie, played by Rip Torn, he's a sleazy, cheap, unstable man. To borrow a phrase from Boris Johnson: He's a great supine, protoplasmic, invertebrate jelly. This man is lower than dirt.
He sleeps with his students who all tell him that he most definitely does not remind them of their fathers. His keen and pedophiliac eyes for underage booty leads him to discover an invention of Newton's. I can't even describe how much I hate all the characters in "The Man Who Fell to Earth".
As far as the actually filming goes, Roeg seems to try to capture both "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Solaris" in his ill-conceieved film...he fails.
Certain logical questions make the film dissolve. For instance: what about the water? It gets forgotten and left behind as a meaningless subplot...considering that it was the reason Newton came to Earth, I would say it would be fairly important later on; but that's just me.
Newton gets to ride elevators again without so much as a hitch, even though he has in no way evolved to better cope with Earth's physics.
But the overwhelming thing that sinks the picture to the bottom of the ocean of horrid films is its excessive need to sexualize everything and I do mean everything! A copious amount of nudity appears in the film, which is a shame because I didn't want to see Bowie, Torn, or Clark naked. The graphicness is unpleasant and unnecessary. It turned an intelligent book into a science fiction porno...I'm exaggerating of course, but come on!
The music is as discordant as the rest of the movie, blending different genres into a cacophony of awful.
Perhaps the reason that "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is so bad is because of the difference in decades. The book was written in the 60s as a parable of the Cold War and a dig to the government...it was a social commentary. The movie was made in the 70s with drug-inspired filming...it leads to no commentary whatsoever.
The effects are good, but when something is afoul in the writer's room, no amount of effect can make up for that.
More sexualizing occurs with the patent lawyer who Mayersberg randomly make a homosexual.
Bryce turns Newton into an alcoholic and we see the worst looking X-ray in history....but those are small fries compared to the overriding vacuousness of the film.
I do believe this is one of the worst movies ever made. Perhaps I'm biased because I read the book, so if you should ever find yourself forced to watch "The Man Who Came to Earth"...please put the book down. You'll only be making comparisons between a brilliant work of writing and a trashy piece of cinema, scraped up from leftover thoughts of the years prior.
Score: 0 out of 4 stars
Posted by Micah Jones