The Man Who Fell to Earth (film)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth
Man who fell to earth ver1.jpg
original British poster
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Produced by Michael Deeley
Barry Spikings
Screenplay by Paul Mayersberg
Based on The Man Who Fell to Earth 
by Walter Tevis
Starring David Bowie
Rip Torn
Candy Clark
Buck Henry
Bernie Casey
Music by John Phillips
Stomu Yamashta
Cinematography Anthony B. Richmond
Edited by Graeme Clifford
Distributed by British Lion Films (UK)
Cinema 5 Distributing (US)
Release dates
  • 18 March 1976 (1976-03-18) (UK)
  • 28 May 1976 (1976-05-28) (US)
Running time
138 minutes[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $1.5 million[2]

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a 1976 British science fiction film directed by Nicolas Roeg.

The film is 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.[3] The film maintains a strong cult following 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.[4] The same novel was later remade as a less successful 1987 television adaptation.

The film was produced by Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, who reunited two years later for work on another epic, The Deer Hunter.


Thomas Jerome Newton is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth from a distant planet on a mission to take water back to his home planet,[5] which is experiencing a catastrophic drought.[6]

Newton uses the advanced technology of his home planet to patent (nine basic patents) many inventions on Earth, and acquires incredible wealth as the head of a technology-based conglomerate, World Enterprises Corporation, aided by leading patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth. His wealth is needed to construct his own space vehicle with the intention of shipping water back to his planet. While revisiting New Mexico, he meets Mary-Lou, a lonely, unloved, and simple girl who works as a maid, bell-hop, and elevator operator in a small hotel; he tells her he is English. Mary-Lou introduces Newton to many customs of Earth, including church-going, alcohol, and sex. She and Newton live together, eventually in a house Newton has had built near where he initially landed in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nathan Bryce, a former womaniser and college professor, has landed a job as a fuel technician with World Enterprises and slowly becomes Newton's confidant. Bryce senses Newton's alienness and arranges a meeting with Newton at his home where he has hidden a special X-ray camera. When he steals a picture of Newton with the camera, it reveals Newton's alien physiology. Newton's appetite for alcohol and television (he watches multiple televisions at once) becomes crippling and he and Mary-Lou fight. Realizing that Bryce has learnt his secret, Newton reveals his alien form to Mary-Lou, and her resulting reaction is one of pure shock and horror. He leaves her.

Newton completes the spaceship and attempts to take it on its maiden voyage amid intense press exposure. However, just before his scheduled take-off, he is seized and detained, apparently by the government and a rival company; his business partner, Farnsworth, is murdered. The government, which has apparently been told by Bryce that Newton is an alien, holds him captive in a locked luxury apartment, constructed deep within a hotel. During his stay, they keep him sedated with alcohol (to which he has become addicted) and continuously subject him to rigorous medical tests – notably one involving X-rays which causes the contact lenses he wears as part of his human disguise to permanently affix themselves to his eyes.

Toward the end of his years of captivity, he is visited again by Mary-Lou, who is now much older and whose looks have been ravaged by alcohol and time. They have violent, un-emotional sex and occupy their time drinking and playing table tennis. Mary-Lou declares that she no longer loves him, while he says that he doesn't love her either. She leaves him. Eventually Newton discovers that his "prison," now derelict, is unlocked, and he escapes.

Throughout the film are brief sequences of his wife and children back on his home planet, slowly dying, and by the end of the film they are dead and Newton is stuck on Earth, broken, alcoholic, and alone. He creates a recording with alien messages, which he hopes will be broadcast via radio to his home planet. Bryce, who has since married Mary-Lou, buys a copy of the album and meets Newton at an outside restaurant in town. Newton is still rich and young looking despite the passage of many years. However, Newton has also fallen into depression and alcoholism and the film ends with an inebriated Newton passing out in his cafe chair.

There is a suggestion within the film that Newton exists in multiple time frames, and is also psychic. In a scene where Newton drives past a field, he sees people who lived there in the distant past, and they also see him in his car driving past the field. Also in various scenes of the film it is suggested that Newton can experience what Bryce is experiencing and feeling.


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.[7] 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 Bryce's walk behind the record bins.


Paramount Pictures had distributed Roeg's previous film, Don't Look Now (1973) and agreed to pay $1.5 million for the US rights. Michael Deeley used this guarantee to raise finance to make the film.[2]

Filming began on 6 July 1975.[8] The film was primarily shot in New Mexico, with filming locations in Albuquerque, White Sands, Artesia and Fenton Lake.[9][10] The film's production had been scheduled to last eleven weeks, and throughout that time, the film crew ran into a variety of obstacles: Bowie was sidelined for a few days after drinking bad milk; film cameras jammed up; and for one scene shot in the desert, the movie crew had to contend with a group of Hells Angels who were camping nearby.[11]

Bowie, who was heavily abusing cocaine at the time of production, admitted later that he was in a fragile state of mind when filming was underway, going so far as to state in 1983 that "I'm so pleased I made that [film], but I didn't really know what was being made at all".[12] He said of his performance:

I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time. It was the first thing I'd ever done. I was virtually ignorant of the established procedure [of making movies], so I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated. I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling. It wasn't that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance. ... a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams [of cocaine] a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.[13]

Bowie and director Roeg had a good relationship on set. Bowie recalled in 1992 that "we got on rather well. I think I was fulfilling what he needed from me for that role. I wasn't disrupting ... I wasn't disrupted. In fact, I was very eager to please. And amazingly enough, I was able to carry out everything I was asked to do. I was quite willing to stay up as long as anybody."[13]


Although Bowie was originally approached to provide the music, contractual wrangles during production caused him to withdraw from this aspect of the project. The music used in the film was coordinated by John Phillips,[14] former leader of the pop group The Mamas & the Papas, with personal contributions from Phillips and Japanese percussionist-composer Stomu Yamashta, as well as some stock music. The music was recorded at CTS Lansdowne Recording Studios in London, England.

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.

Special electronic and oceanic effects were done by Desmond Briscoe and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Relationship with the novel[edit]

Newton's mission is kept vague in the film.[15] 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 three 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.


According to Michael Deeley, when Barry Diller of Paramount Pictures saw the finished film he refused to pay for it, claiming it was different from the movie the studio wanted. British Lion sued Paramount and received a small settlement. The film obtained a small release in the US through Cinema V in exchange for $850,000 and due to foreign sales the film's budget was just recouped.[2]


Since its original 1976 release, The Man Who Fell to Earth has grown to a cult status. On film 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."[16] It was entered into the 26th Berlin International Film Festival.[17] Bowie won the Saturn Award for Best Actor for his work in the film.

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."[18]

When the film was re-released in 2011, Ebert gave the film three stars, stating that readers should "consider this just a quiet protest vote against the way projects this ambitious are no longer possible in the mainstream movie industry."[19] 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."[20]

Home media[edit]

The Man Who Fell to Earth was originally released on DVD on 25 August 1998 through Fox Lorber with no special features. On 11 February 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 27 September 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 16 December 2008 in the Blu-ray format. It has since gone out of print.

In popular culture[edit]

  • The cover art for Bowie's 1977 album Low is based on the film's poster. His 1976 album Station to Station features another still from the film.
  • The film was used as one of the key elements of the novel VALIS by Philip K. Dick, with 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 novel also incorporates a fictional incident in which Dick visits Bowie and Brian Eno, who turn out to be harbouring a small child who may be the messiah.
  • The music video to Guns N' Roses's 1987 "Welcome to the Jungle" was partially based on The Man Who Fell to Earth.[21]
  • The music video to Scott Weiland's 1998 song "Barbarella" uses themes from The Man Who Fell to Earth.[22]
  • The music video to Marilyn Manson's 1998 song "The Dope Show" uses themes from The Man Who Fell to Earth.
  • The film is referenced both lyrically and visually in the video for the song "E=MC2" by the British band Big Audio Dynamite.[23]
  • In 2001, David Bowie starred in an XM Radio commercial where he fell through the roof of a motel. Upon standing, he looks up and states "I'll never get used to that."[24]
  • Dr. Manhattan’s apartment and Ozymandias' Antarctic retreat in the 2009 film Watchmen were mainly based on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth.[25]
  • The 2009 song "ATX" by Alberta Cross is based on Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell to Earth.[26]
  • Michael Fassbender has said he used Bowie's performance as an inspiration for the android David in Ridley Scott's 2012 science fiction film Prometheus.[27]
  • The television series Fringe features a recurring character who uses the alias Thomas Jerome Newton. The series had previously used a character named David Robert Jones, which is Bowie's birth name. The series also features a secondary character named Astrid Farnsworth.[28]
  • In Bret Easton Ellis's 2010 novel Imperial Bedrooms, the main character mentions that he is involved with writing the script for a remake of The Man Who Fell to Earth.[29]
  • A poster for The Man Who Fell to Earth can be seen in the 2011 film Green Lantern.
  • The typeface from the movie's poster inspired the logo of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden.


  1. ^ "THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (18)". British Board of Film Classification. 13 February 1976. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c Michael Deeley, Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies, Pegasus Books, 2009 p 116-127
  3. ^ Rozen, Leah (1 October 1976). "'Man who Fell' baffling". Daily Collegian (Penn State University). 
  4. ^ Blackburn, Olly (9 July 2008). "Olly Blackburn meets Nic Roeg". Time Out London. 
  5. ^ Edwards, Henry (21 March 1976). "Bowie's Back But the Glitter's Gone; Bowie's Back But the Glitter's Gone". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ Eder, Richard (6 June 1976). "'Man Who Fell to Earth' Is Beautiful Science Fiction". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ "The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) – Full cast and crew". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 10 July 2008. 
  8. ^ Filming begins
  9. ^ "Fenton Lake State Park". NM State Parks. 
  10. ^ "Best-movie Oscar is film-office triumph". Santa Fe New Mexican. 3 March 2008. 
  11. ^ Filming obstacles
  12. ^ Loder, Kurt (12 May 1983), "Straight Time", Rolling Stone magazine (395): 22–28, 81 
  13. ^ a b Campbell, Virginia (April 1992), "Bowie at the Bijou", Movieline 3 (7): 30–36, 80, 83, 86–87 
  14. ^ "Obituary: John Phillips". The Independent (London, England). 20 March 2001. He recorded with his new partner Genevieve Waite and provided the soundtrack for Nic Roeg's 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth. 
  15. ^ Cocks, Jay (14 June 1976). "Heavenly Body". Time (magazine). 
  16. ^ The Man Who Fell to Earth at Rotten Tomatoes
  17. ^ " Awards for The Man Who Fell to Earth". Retrieved 16 July 2010. 
  18. ^ Roger Ebert (23 July 1976). "The Man Who Fell to Earth". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  19. ^ Roger Ebert (13 July 2011). "The Man Who Fell to Earth". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  20. ^ Richard Eder – review
  21. ^ Guns N' Roses Video History
  22. ^ A Walk On The Weiland Side
  23. ^ Video on YouTube
  24. ^ Video on YouTube
  25. ^ Wired- The Design of Watchmen
  26. ^ Uncut – Alberta Cross News
  27. ^ Time. 6 June 2012  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  28. ^ Fringe (Season 2)
  29. ^ Google Books, Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis.

External links[edit]