Criterion Corner: The Abject Terror of Assimilation: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is one of those films that was initially panned by critics, but then reevaluated over the years and deemed a work or art. The story is somewhat simple on first glance: an alien (played by David Bowie) comes to earth to secure water for his planet which is suffering a life-threatening drought. Taking on the name Thomas Newton, the extraterrestrial starts a technology company with his advanced scientific knowledge in order to raise enough money to build a spacecraft to haul the water back to his home planet.

The main theme of this film is the concept of assimilation and the positive and negative ways it can impact one's life. Newton takes on a human disguise in order to fit in with society (although Bowie's gorgeous androgynous appearance is anything but ordinary) and in doing so is denying his true nature. However, this allows him to connect with the local populace, in particular a woman named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) a down-to-earth gal who shows Newton the simple pleasures, or perhaps vices, of human existence such as sex and alcohol. Although it is apparent that Newton has love for Mary-Lou, he does have a family on his home planet that he misses dearly, and his relationship with Mary-Lou only serves to make him even more homesick.

As an aside, I always find it fascinating the way that director Nicolas Roeg depicts sex scenes in his films as they are never straightforward or traditional. Most of the sex in The Man Who Fell to Earth is framed with violent imagery or edited in a frantic manner. One scene in particular has Newton and Mary-Lou having animalistic sex while firing a gun filled with blanks at each other and laughing manically. As a contrast, Newton has a daydream where he recalls sex with his alien wife, and it's depicted as a surreal and ephemeral moment with two bodies covered in a viscous liquid snaking around each other in a sensual dance. Perhaps this is done this way to solidify the idea that Newton is not congruent with our earth and our ways.

The narrative of this film is hard to follow at times as it jumps around quite a bit and has a dreamlike quality. This style of filming is what turned critics off when it was first released, but the surreal atmosphere and bizarre visuals are what makes it the cult classic it is today. David Bowie's performance is fantastic which is amazing since this was his very first film role. Interestingly, Bowie says this was a dark time in his life where he was doing a large amount of coke everyday, but his disassociation from real life is what makes his performance in the film so mesmerizing. His thin frame and otherworldly beauty are not meant for this world. 

As the film progresses, Newton becomes overcome by the time-wasting frivolities of our society, preferring to stay inebriated all day and watch television instead of actively working to return to his home world. He has become trapped in the rat race, and although over the years he retains his youthful appearance his drive has disappeared. This could be a metaphor for how a person, when they are young and optimistic, joins the adult world ready to accomplish their dreams, but as the doldrums and trials pile on them they become listless and complacent. Their assimilation into society is only complete when they have every ounce of creativity and hope drained from them. The film ends on this note, a nihilistic fairy tale with a warning to those who would succumb to the urge to give up on their aspirations.

--Michelle Kisner