Big Screen Berkeley: The Man Who Fell to Earth

David Bowie in "The man who fell to earth"

Once upon a time, anniversaries were special things: occasions when couples celebrated fifty years of marriage, companies celebrated a century of commerce, and countries celebrated bicentennials. Then something happened, and we all started buying special 15th Anniversary DVD editions of mediocre situation comedies and 22nd Anniversary editions of bad progressive rock music.

Which brings us to the 35th anniversary re-release of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Rialto Pictures has struck some new 35mm prints of Roeg’s film, one of which is coming to Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas this Friday for a weeklong engagement. Has it really only been 420 months since it first baffled cinemagoers? And is it worth a sawbuck to see it again on the big screen?

Ginger-haired David Bowie stars as Thomas Jerome Newton, an interstellar traveler who one day finds himself in a strange new world of pawn shops and bouncy castles. Newton, who travels on a British passport, is actually from Anthea, a distant planet experiencing severe drought. He’s brought some of Anthea’s super-duper advanced technology to Earth in hopes of swapping it for dollars, which, in turn, will allow him to solve his home planet’s water shortage, assuming Anthea won’t object to his bringing large amounts of foreign currency into the country.

With the help of patent lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry), Newton becomes a multi-millionaire. As the years pass, however, people begin to wonder about the stranger with no past, whilst Newton himself develops a serious case of homesickness. Flashbacks to the good old days on Anthea reveal the planet to be a wee bit desiccated—though on the plus side, it does feature good public transportation in the form of what can only be described as a rail-yurt.


Though their light rail system might seem alien to us, Antheans do have something in common with Earthlings: they love television. Newton’s first glimpse of the big blue marble comes via the boob tube; once on Earth he becomes physically addicted to it, watching up to a dozen different sets at the same time (the scene in which he experiences a TV OD is one of the film’s most memorable moments). Newton Minow’s vast wasteland speech, however, hasn’t been lost on our hero, who proclaims at one point that “the strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you anything.” Well, other than which paper towel is most absorbent, of course.

The Man Who Fell to Earth dove-tailed nicely with Bowie’s mid-seventies image makeover, helping him complete the transition from raunchy rocker Ziggy Stardust to the elegantly dressed, androgynous Thin White Duke of the Station to Station period. Though never a great actor, he’s a suitably otherworldly presence here, and is perfectly coupled with the marvelous Candy Clark as Mary Lou, an ambitious hotel chambermaid who wins his trust and shares in his newfound wealth.

In sum, The Man Who Fell to Earth is typical Roeg: a beautiful shaggy dog tale made by a man more interested in image than substance (see also: Don’t Look Now, Eureka). Rialto’s print is gorgeous (and twenty minutes longer than the film’s original cut), but appears to be identical to the version widely available on home video and premium channels. If you were wowed by the film on its initial release and haven’t seen it since, it’s a worthwhile investment. If not, you may wish to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the paper towel instead.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.