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The Man Who Fell to Earth is a 1976 science fiction film directed by Nicolas Roeg, based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, about an extraterrestrial who crash lands on Earth seeking a way to ship water to his planet, which is suffering from a severe drought. The film maintains a strong cult status for its use of surreal imagery and its performances by David Bowie (in his first starring film role), Candy Clark, and Hollywood veteran Rip Torn. The same novel was later remade as a less-successful 1987 television adaptation. A remake is in production, scheduled for release in 2009.


Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth from a distant planet seeking a way to bring water back to his home planet from Earth. His home planet of Anthea is experiencing a terrible drought.

Newton uses the advanced technology of his home planet to patent many inventions on Earth, and rises to incredible wealth as the head of a technology-based conglomerate, World Enterprises Corporation, aided by leading patent attorney Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Secretly, this wealth is needed to construct his own space vehicle program in order to ship water back to his home planet.

While in New Mexicomarker, he meets Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a cute but lonely, unloved and simple girl working as maid, bell-person and elevator operator in a small hotel. Soon, a love affair begins between the two, and Mary-Lou introduces Newton to many customs of Earth culture; amongst them church-going, fashion, alcohol, and eventually humanoid sex. However, his appetite for alcohol and television become crippling, slowly souring his relationship. His secret identity as an alien is also discovered by his intensely curious fuel technician Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), one of Newton's few friends. He also reveals his true form as an alien to Mary-Lou, who is intensely shocked and unable to cope with this fact.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) and Mary Lou (Candy Clark) singing hymns in a church
attempts to take the spaceship on its maiden voyage amongst a myriad of press exposure, but just before his scheduled take-off he is detained, apparently by the government, while operatives kill his key business partners including Farnsworth and his lover. The government, which has received the tip that he is an alien through Bryce, holds him captive in a luxury 'apartment' (constructed on a floor of a Hotel named 'Plaza') where they continuously send him through rigorous and inhumane tests, culminating in the contact lenses in his disguise being permanently affixed to his eyes due to X-rays.

Towards the end of his captivity, he is visited again by Mary-Lou, now far older, her once wholesomely pretty face and figure having been ravaged by the years, who, despite her now primarily sexual interests in Newton, ultimately realizes that the relationship between them has failed. When she leaves, Newton discovers that his 'prison' is unlocked and that the government evidently has no further interest in him, so he leaves.

Newton has ultimately failed in his mission to save his dying planet, ending up trapped on Earth - broken and lonely. Without other options, he creates a recording with alien messages, which he hopes will be broadcast via radio to his home-planet to say goodbye. Nathan Bryce buys one of these recordings and decides to meet Newton, curious to know what was on the recording; Bryce is now showing signs of old age, but Newton is still young, however he is depressed and drunken, trying with difficulty to remain stoic in the face of his defeat, no longer interested in trying to save his people.

Relationship with the novel

The screenplay by Paul Mayersberg and the resulting film are significantly different from the novel in many respects and stands more as a work on its own than a direct interpretation. Several physical changes occur to the characters, most notably the appearance of Bowie's signature orange hair—in the book, Newton is described as having curly white-blonde hair. Newton is also a much more stoic character in the film, who sheds no tears despite his aggravation, frustration and torment.

The film also features changes to other characters. In the novel, the Mary-Lou character is called Betty Jo, and she acts merely as a sort of housekeeper, with no suggestion that there is any intimate relationship between her and Newton, although the film's resolution, which sees Bryce and Mary Lou become lovers, follows the plot of the novel.

Another minor change is the character of Newton's mysterious French valet, Brinnarde, who is in fact a CIA agent. In the film this becomes the incidental character of Arthur, Newton's driver.

The film screenplay develops the character of Dr. Bryce in considerably more depth than in the novel. In the book Tevis says Bryce is a widower, but an early scene in the film suggests that Bryce may be separated or divorced. The film (graphically) depicts Bryce having sexual encounters with his young female students, and his meeting with Prof. Canutti in the film develops this "mid-life-crisis" aspect even further. Roeg also uses these trysts to introduce the plot point of Bryce's fascination with World Enterprises' new technology—in the book, Bryce's curiosity is aroused after seeing a movie filmed in the new "Worldcolor" process, whereas in the film Bryce becomes aware of the new technology after his lover uses one of Newton's self-developing cameras to photograph their love-making.

In the film, Bryce's discovery of Newton's alien identity—by secretly photographing him with an X-ray camera—is closely modelled on the novel. However, by showing a shadowy figure who observes Newton just after his ship arrives on Earth, Roeg signals from the outset that the government has known of Newton's presence and kept him under surveillance since the day he arrived, a revelation that is made near the end of the novel.

Newton's mission is kept vague in the film. In the book, however, it is explained that Newton's space vehicle is intended to return to Anthea automatically and ferry the surviving Antheans back to Earth, after which they plan to infiltrate key government posts and take over the direction of Earth's affairs. In a key chapter, Newton reveals to Bryce that Anthea has been virtually destroyed by a nuclear war which has exterminated several other intelligent species, and that only about one hundred of Newton's own species now survive. He also reveals that the key motivation for his mission is the Antheans' fear that a global nuclear war will devastate the Earth within the next decade unless they intervene.

The character of Newton's lawyer and amanuensis Oliver Farnsworth (played by writer-actor Buck Henry) is also considerably more developed than in the novel; Roeg's depiction of Farnsworth's home life clearly suggests that Farnsworth is gay and in a long-term relationship with a younger man, and Farnsworth's brutal death at the hands of federal agents is another plot point that appears only in the film adaptation.

Depictions of the span and passage of time also differ markedly between the novel and film. The novel uses definite dates to specify time-period, revolving around events such as the elections of presidents and the beginnings of wars—the revised version of the book is divided into three main sections, set in the years 1985, 1988 and 1990 respectively, with the entire action in novel taking place over a period of just five years. In the 1963 edition the dates began in 1972 and ended at 1976. There is a small time line inconsistency in the revised version of the novel (all editions published after 1978).

In the film, there are no calendars or clocks and there is no overt reference to the passing of the years, although there is one brief indication of the historical setting for the first section of the film—when Newton first visits Farnsworth in New York, an establishing street shot shows a banner for the 1976 United States Bicentennial celebrations. This is most likely also a reference to the original plot of the novel, with Newton eventually discovering that he has been detained by the CIA because the incumbent US Democratic administration is desperate that the alien's identity not be revealed because it is an election year (as it was in 1976).

The most obvious time indicator in the film is that Newton's appearance never changes, while the human characters age markedly, with Rip Torn and Candy Clark's characters passing from youth to late middle-age through the film, suggesting that the action in the film has been expanded to cover a period of perhaps thirty to fifty years.

In fact, the film uses few transitions aside from straight cuts, which, in tandem with surreal montages which could freely be dream sequences, simultaneous events, or parallel realities, intentionally distorting the viewer's sense of the passage of time. Other details are also omitted, such as the name of Newton's home world (Anthea, in the novel) and the fate of Newton's original vehicle to reach Earth.

Many other changes, such as the setting being transformed from Kentuckymarker to New Mexicomarker, hinged for the most part on the film's budget and available resources; according to the bonus "making-of" documentary included on the DVD edition of the film, New Mexico was chosen primarily because it had recently passed new labor laws which allowed the producers to import an all-British crew. But ultimately these changes were used by Nicolas Roeg for more interpretive and artistic purposes; the use of local sand dunes to depict Newton's home world was very useful.



In the scene in which Newton attempts to board his spacecraft, he is greeted by a crowd that includes real-life astronaut Jim Lovell (commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), playing himself, and by author Terry Southern, as a reporter. In the scene set in the record store, an advertising banner for Bowie's album Young Americans can be seen hanging from the ceiling as the shot follows his walk behind the record bins.


On July 6, 1975 filming began. The film's production had been scheduled to last eleven weeks. Throughout the eleven weeks, the film crew ran into some obstacles. One day, Bowie noticed "Some gold liquid swimming around in shiny swirls inside the glass" of milk he was drinking and for the next two days of production Bowie was sick. On top of that, equipment was malfunctioning and run-ins with locals occurred.

The film was primarily shot in New Mexicomarker. Filming locations include Albuquerquemarker, White Sandsmarker, Artesiamarker, and Fenton Lake.


Due to a creative and contractual dispute with Roeg and the studio, no official soundtrack was ever released for the film, even though the 1976 Pan Books paperback edition of the novel (released to tie in with the film) states on the back cover that the soundtrack is available on RCA. According to Bowie in several interviews over the years, there are no plans ever to release a soundtrack album, and he has absolutely no desire to undertake the effort due to the legal entanglements. Although Bowie was originally approached to provide the music, contractual wrangles during production caused him to withdraw from this aspect of the project, and the music used in the film was co-ordinated by John Phillips, former leader of the pop group The Mamas & the Papas, with contributions from Phillips himself and Japanese percussionist-composer Stomu Yamashta, as well as some stock music. The music was recorded at CTS Lansdowne Recording Studios in London, England.

Music crew

Music as listed on end credits:

Composed & recorded by Stomu Yamashta
  • "Poker Dice"
  • "33 1/3"
  • "Mandala"
  • "Wind Words"
  • "One Way"
  • "Memory of Hiroshima"

Performed by John Phillips
  • "Boys From The South"
  • "Rhumba Boogie"
  • "Bluegrass Breakdown"
  • "Hello Mary-Lou" (feat. Mick Taylor)

Other music:

(Special electronic and oceanic effects were done by Desmond Briscoe and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutionmarker)


Since its release in 1976, The Man Who Fell to Earth has grown to a cult status. On the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes the film has earned an 86% "Fresh" rating with a consensus of: "Filled with stunning imagery, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a calm, meditative film that profoundly explores our culture's values and desires."

The film has received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film 2½ stars of four, writing in his review that the film is "so preposterous and posturing, so filled with gaps of logic and continuity, that if it weren't so solemn there'd be the temptation to laugh aloud." Richard Eder of The New York Times praised the film, writing, "There are quite a few science-fiction movies scheduled to come out in the next year or so. We shall be lucky if even one or two are as absorbing and as beautiful as The Man Who Fell to Earth."

Home video

The Man Who Fell to Earth was originally released onto DVD on August 25, 1998 through Fox Lorber with no special features. On February 11, 2003 Anchor Bay released a special edition two-disc set of the film. This version contains many special features such as commentaries, interviews, and a trailer. Finally, on September 27, 2005 the film was released in a high-definition widescreen transfer as a part of the Criterion Collection. This director-approved edition of the film contained all of the special features of the Anchor Bay version plus newer interviews. The Criterion Collection then re-released the film on December 16, 2008 in the Blu-ray format.

Cultural influences

  • The film was used as one of the key elements of the novel VALIS by Philip K. Dick, with David Bowie appearing in the novel as "Mother Goose" and the film represented by the titular film "VALIS" (although plot elements were changed dramatically, so that the film became something very different in Dick's novel).

  • The 2009 song "ATX" by Alberta Cross is based on David Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell to Earth.


  1. Filming begins
  2. Filming obstacles
  3. Rotten Tomatoes
  4. Roger Ebert - review
  5. Richard Eder - review
  6. Guns N' Roses Video History
  7. A Walk On The Weiland Side
  8. Wired- The Design of Watchmen
  9. Uncut - Alberta Cross News

External links

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