The Man Who Fell to Earth, revisited

Still from 'The Man Who Fell to Earth', 1976, Nicolas Roeg

I've often thought that The Man Who Fell to Earth, which I saw at the Edinburgh Filmhouse a few days ago, should be my favourite film. All the elements are there. An intriguing story. A bold director. A perfectly cast, charismatic lead performance.

Nicolas Roeg's 1976 interpretation of Walter Tevis' classic sci-fi novel stars an appropriately otherworldly David Bowie as Thomas J Newton, an alien who comes to Earth on a desperate mission to save his people from extinction. Their planet, Anthea, is dying, a desert world ravaged by atomic warfare. Newton is charged with executing an ambitious plan that seeks to exploit advanced Anthean technological knowledge: he brings with him blueprints for technologies unknown to humans which, when patented, will allow him to build a global business empire capable of funding the development of a space craft which - under the guise of space exploration - will travel to Anthea and ferry the surviving remnant to Earth.

I first saw the film (some few years ago now) during a student film night, and remember my disappointment. It was certainly intelligent and ambitious, graced with many rich images and scenes. And Bowie of course, an elegant, skeletal, androgynous presence, more so than ever during the mid-70s, is an ideal Newton, barely having to act to convey the character's etherial, alien strangeness. The stars were seemingly aligned. But I thought the film's potential was undone by the director's desire to shock.

Roeg's earlier film casting a famous musician, Performance, starring Mick Jagger, acquired a certain notoriety for a number of explicit scenes featuring sex and violence. I thought they worked in the context of that film's subject matter, an exploration of a seedy underground London. But in The Man Who Fell to Earth they seemed bolted on, gratuitous, actually rather boring.

I went to see it again last week in the fond hope that I'd like it somewhat more: perhaps the callow student had missed some important references the first time round? But no: while it was good to finally see it on a big screen, I have to say I still struggled to get through it, and was left, again, with the sense that the serious intention of the story had been obscured by cheap spectacle.

Reading the book

It occurred to me the following day that rather than wishing the film to have been something different I should actually read Walter Tevis' original book, which seems considerably less well known than the film. I've just finished it, and I don't think there's much doubt that this is most definitely one of those instances where the book is much better than the film. It's a wonderful little novel, sounding depths the film doesn't approach. It's less than 200 pages long, but covers so much.

One of the book's primary themes, prescient for its date of publication, 1963, is the spectre of environmental destruction. We see the Earth afresh through Newton's astonished eyes, scarcely able to comprehend the richness of our natural world, so different from the parched tundra he has left behind:

He could see the water of the pond through the trees, and the sight of it made his breath catch, for there was so much of it. He had seen it before like that, in his two days on earth… but he was not yet used to it. It was another of those things that he had expected but was still a shock to see. He knew, of course, about the great oceans and about the lakes and rivers, had known about them since he was a boy; but the actual sight of the profusion of water in a single pond was breath-taking.

He began to see a kind of beauty in the strangeness of the field, too. It was quite different from what he had been taught to expect - as, he had already discovered, were many of the things of this world - yet there was pleasure now for him in its alien colours and textures, its new sights and smells. Its sounds, too; for his ears were very acute and he heard many strange and pleasant noises in the grass, the diverse rubbings and clickings of those insects that had survived the cold weather of early November; and even, with his head now against the ground, the very small, subtle murmurings in the earth itself.

Suddenly there was a fluttering in the air, an uprush of black wings, then hoarse, mournful calling, and a dozen crows flew overhead and away across the field. The Anthean watched them until they were out of sight, and then he smiled. This would be, after all, a fine world…

As the novel progresses, Newton becomes ever more sceptical of the plausibility and ultimate wisdom of the mission with which he has been charged, fearing that by the time any space craft he was able to launch returned to Earth our planet will have been rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war or ecological catastrophe. Newton fears that, like the Antheans, humanity will end up using technology to destroy itself. The scientific knowledge that made his journey to Earth possible also enables the development of nuclear arms. The book makes several references to the legend of Icarus, who, like the Antheans as represented by Newton, fell to Earth as a consequence of failing to marshall technology wisely.

Detail from 'The Fall of Icarus', Pieter Brueghel

The book also has political undercurrents, most notably in regard to the relationship between the individual and the state. Would a private citizen, no matter how wealthy, be permitted to execute a program of space exploration as ambitious as that envisaged by Newton? The answer becomes clears as the story unfolds.

Everyman

But the novel's deepest theme, I think, is loneliness, most obviously manifested, of course, in the figure of Newton, the solitary member of his kind on a strange planet, burdened with an impossible responsibility. Unable to share his true identity and increasingly aware of the hopelessness of his project, he gradually succumbs to alcoholism, indulging in wines impossibly scarce on his own planet.

And as I read I realised that Tevis is inviting us to see ourselves in Newton: in a sense he is Everyman, representative of the essential condition of us all. His situation is especially acute, but ultimately we are all strangers on this planet, thrown into existence, men and women who have, in a sense, fallen to Earth. The book's ultimate concern is philosophical, indeed theological, disclosed with great subtlety.

Beautiful science fiction, I thought. I'm not sure about the film, but I warmly recommend the book.

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