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Film / The Man Who Fell to Earth

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"I think perhaps Mr. Newton has had enough, don't you?"

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a 1976 sci-fi film directed by Nicolas Roeg, based upon the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis (of The Hustler (1961) fame). It stars the thin, other-worldly David Bowie as the thin, other-worldly Thomas Jerome Newton in his first major film role.

The film centers around an extraterrestrial who journeys to Earth after his planet experiences an intense drought, determined to find a way to ship water to it. As he amasses a fortune with a variety of high-tech inventions, intending to use the money to build a ship that will solve his planet's problem, he embarks upon a love affair with a simple girl named Mary-Lou, which is nice, one supposes. Thomas also ends up starting a love affair with television and alcohol, which is a lot less nice, one supposes. To reveal any more would delve this into spoiler city. Let's simply say the ending is... sad.

In late 2015 Lazarus, a musical stage play Inspired by… the source novel debuted off-Broadway. It was written by Enda Walsh and...David Bowie, who didn't appear in the show but contributed several new songs to it, as well as new versions of songs from his catalog. Michael C. Hall played Thomas in the world premiere staging, which was one of the last works Bowie realized in his lifetime— his final public appearance was at the show's opening night, and his studio recordings of the songs he wrote for it were later included on the 2017 posthumous EP No Plan.

In 2022, a sequel TV series started on Showtime, airing a season of 10 episodes so far.

The Man Who Fell to Earth provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Thomas's hair is curly, white, and natural in the novel, but in the film it's Bowie's own Dye Hard red locks (he is a natural dark blonde), and those are revealed in-story to be part of his disguise, as he is hairless.
  • The Alcoholic: Thomas becomes one, thanks to Mary-Lou introducing him to the joys of alcohol.
  • Alien Among Us: Thomas Jerome Newton.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Thomas. The flashbacks to his homeworld have no dialogue, so we have no idea what his native tongue is like, but we can assume he learned English as part of preparing for his mission.
  • Aliens Steal Cable: Thomas's people can observe Earth this way, so once he's established his business empire there he appears in an ad for it to serve as a coded greeting to his family back home. To bid his people farewell he records an album, figuring the message will be transmitted via radio waves.
  • Bottomless Magazines: A six-cylinder revolver is fired seventeen times in succession (on the other hand, they're all part of a montage...).
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Played for Drama — Mary-Lou wets herself upon seeing Thomas's true form.
  • Came from the Sky: It's right there in the title.
  • Celebrity Paradox: An ad for Young Americans is visible in the record store at the end of the film; nobody comments on the fact that Thomas looks exactly like the guy who recorded that album (one could interpret the album In-Universe as being the one Thomas recorded for his family to hear, but the fact that it's a real-world record that still prominently displays the name "David Bowie" on the advertisement mitigates this).
  • Covered in Gunge: In what appears to be a weird alien sex scene, Thomas and his alien wife are this at one point.
  • Destination Defenestration: Farnsworth, after refusing to sell World Enterprises.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The film can be seen as a metaphor for fame.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Thomas doesn't just fall to Earth physically, and that's why there's a...
  • Downer Ending: Oh yes. Thomas slips into alcoholism, is captured by the government and experimented on for years, fails his planet, lets his family die, and loses the only thing he has left to love on Earth. The book goes one "better": Thomas's ordeal is revealed to the public and starts America down a political path towards nuclear war...had his plan succeeded that would have been prevented.
  • Dying Race: Thomas's, due to the drought.
  • E.T. Gave Us Wi-Fi: Thomas uses the advanced technology from his home planet to patent numerous inventions on Earth, leading to him becoming very wealthy.
  • Eye Scream: Thomas's eyes are extremely sensitive to x-ray light. In the novel, he is blinded when he is forcibly x-rayed, while in the movie, this trope comes into play in the equivalent event in that his contact lenses end up fused to his eyes when they won't let him remove them.
  • Fake Brit: Thomas is an in-universe example in both the book and the film.
  • False Friend: Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) joins World Enterprises and quickly works his way up to being Newton's confidant, but he's a self-centered, amoral man, and once he begins to suspect something unusual about Newton, Bryce starts turning against him.
  • The Film of the Book: Albeit with significant alterations, deletions, and expansions — there is no romantic relationship for Thomas on Earth in the book, and the sex lives of the characters aren't brought up at all, for starters. As well, the story is straightforwardly told in the novel. It's a Type 2 on the Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification (recognizable as an adaptation). The Criterion Collection DVD edition actually included a copy of the book.
  • Fish out of Water: Thomas, majorly.
  • Foreshadowing: The first person Thomas sees on Earth is an old, shabby wino. At the end, Thomas is just a wealthy, better-dressed version of him.
  • Freaky Is Cool: Early on in their relationship, Mary-Lou says "You know Tommy, you're a freak. I don't mean that unkindly. I like freaks. And that's why I like you." (Sadly, when she sees his true form it becomes clear there's only so much freakiness she can take.)
  • Flashback: Many to Thomas's homeworld and family, revealing not only the sequence of events that forced him to leave on his mission but (in the sequence in which Mary-Lou rejects his true form) how his kind have sex. Later, the audience is also privy to what his family are doing in his absence.
  • Hellish Pupils: Subversion, since it's the hero who has them. Thomas's undisguised eyes are reptilian yellow ones, slit irises and all, and the usual way this trope plays out is likely one reason his true form freaks Mary-Lou out so badly.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Thomas is shown to be this when he attempts to sing the hymns at church; bonus points for being played by David Bowie. Implicitly subverted at the end of the film, though, when it's revealed that Thomas has recorded a whole music album to broadcast as a goodbye to his family back on his home planet.
  • Hot for Student: Dr. Nathan Bryce teaches some extra credit lessons to some of his female students...
  • Human Aliens: This is how Thomas appears most of the time, but it is an elaborate disguise. His actual form, which includes cat-like eyes and lacks ears, hair, fingernails, etc., belongs to the Rubber-Forehead Aliens trope. This is a major change from the novel, in which Thomas doesn't need to alter his appearance much to walk amongst humans.
  • Humanity Is Infectious: Yes, indeed. Bowie stated in a 1980 interview with NME that Thomas "is a far better person at the end of the film than he was when he came down" thanks to this, which may well be true. But his saying that "what the effects of all that on him are is secondary" seems to easily dismiss the Downer Ending...
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Averted. Thomas tells Nathan, when all is said and done, "We'd have probably done the same to you, if you'd come 'round our place."
  • Icarus Allusion: Both the book and film openly reference the myth of Icarus, who literally fell to Earth when he flew too close to the sun via wings of feathers and wax. The first section of the novel is titled "Icarus Descending".
  • Innocent Aliens: Thomas; the central tragedy of the story is his loss of innocence as he lives among humans.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: In the scene where Thomas and Mary-Lou have graphic sex while shooting blanks, sometimes at each other, with a revolver.
  • I Will Wait for You: Thomas's family. They die waiting.
  • Karma Houdini: Well, the U.S. government is never brought to justice for at least two murders and the torture Thomas is put through. And Nathan not only isn't punished for betraying Thomas, but also marries Mary-Lou and lives happily with her. This doesn't apply to the government in the book, but it doesn't make the ending any happier.
  • Last of His Kind: Thomas faces this fate if his mission doesn't succeed. And it doesn't.
  • Love Hurts: Especially when you're light-years away from your family and your relationship with your mistress is going sour...
  • Mars Needs Water: Newton has come to Earth for water. In the brief scene we see of him at home with his family, they're all wearing skintight suits to keep their sweat in.
  • Meaningful Name: Newton, as Roger Ebert noted in his 2011 review (when the film was given a reissue on the arthouse circuit), is "a name with a lot of gravity". Oliver Farnsworth, the patent attorney Newton hires, shares a surname with Philo Farnsworth, who was (to quote Wikipedia) the "Inventor of the first electronic television".
  • Mega-Corp: World Enterprises is a benevolent version of Type 2.
  • Messianic Archetype: Thomas must leave his home world, people, and family to save them, and he suffers greatly on Earth, up to and including betrayal by Nathan Bryce. Thanks in part to the resultant years of captivity and torture his mission fails, leaving him broken, making this probably a subversion of the trope. The Christ parallel is made more explicit in the source novel.
  • Meta Casting: The casting is not just Actor Allusion. Originally Peter O'Toole was cast as Newton, but when that didn't work out, Roeg got the idea to cast David Bowie upon seeing the BBC documentary profile Cracked Actor, which followed the singer on his 1974 U.S. tour, and realizing he had exactly the stranger-in-a-strange-land (namely the U.S.) quality the character needed.
  • Mind Screw: The film frequently indulges in surreal imagery.
  • New Wave Science Fiction: The book and movie both came directly out of the New Wave movement of The '60s and The '70s.
  • No New Fashions in the Future: Despite the fact that the human characters grow much older, it's all Seventies clothes, technology, etc. In the book, there are changes in fashion-frilly shirts for men, 'off-the-breast' gowns for women-but the world is very much that of its writing, 1963-64.
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: Though David Bowie was formally trained in acting and mime, he was generally known as just a musician before his major film debut here.
  • Non-Human Lover Reveal: Gender flipped and deconstructed. When Thomas reveals his true form to Mary-Lou - long after they've consummated their relationship (their lovemaking, it should be noted, requires him to be in his human disguise) - she is horrified and repulsed. Thus, their already-troubled relationship is further damaged.
  • Nothing but Skin and Bones: Mary-Lou comments on Thomas's thinness.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Now What?: Unlike the novel, the Downer Ending here also qualifies as this. After all, Thomas failed in his mission and lost everything important to him. But he still has money and his drinking won't kill him any time soon; he could have centuries left to go. what? Somewhat answered in Lazarus. Things don't get better.
  • Old Flame Fizzle: In the final act, Nathan arranges for Mary-Lou to stay with Thomas in his prison suite. But she's visibly aged and he hasn't since they last met-yet another difference between them. They enjoy a wild sexual tryst but no longer love each other, so they break up. A justified, downplayed case.
  • Ominous Multiple Screens: Justified, in that Thomas can actually pay attention to all of the screens.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Some of the score is the work of John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas. The original plan was for Bowie to write the score, and he was working on it with Paul Buckmaster, but for various reasons it was not used and-save for a bit of backwards bass that appeared on Low's "Subterraneans" the following year — has never been released to the public.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: In the book, Thomas has no Earthly lover. Mary-Lou is a younger, Promoted to Love Interest version of the book character Betty Jo, who is middle-aged when she meets him and nurses an unrequited crush on him as one of his few confidantes. Interestingly, her ultimate fate- marrying Nathan-remains the same as in the book.
  • Reclusive Artist: Newton definitely counts in-universe—he rarely goes out in public and leaves the day to day operations of the company to Farnsworth. Justified as he wants to escape detection ("My life is not secret, but it is private.").
  • Re-Cut: The American theatrical release reordered scenes and cut about twenty minutes, but the current video releases are uncut.
  • The Remake: A 1987 Made-for-TV Movie that credited both the novel and screenplay but made plenty of changes, in part because it was intended to launch a Recycled: The Series.
  • Second Love: Mary Lou is (arguably) this for Newton. And Nathan is this for Mary-Lou.
  • Silence Is Golden: There is no dialogue in the scenes set on Thomas's home planet.
  • Standard Snippet: The U.K. theatrical trailer used Holst's Mars, Bringer of War (ironic, since Thomas comes in peace).
  • The Stoic: In the film, Thomas is a quiet soul whose emotionlessness rarely cracks; when it does it is usually when he is frightened and/or in physical pain. He was more emotional in the book, particularly at the end. There were several instances in the original screenplay where he was meant to shed tears, but those scenes were either not filmed, or left out of the final cut, for whatever reason.
  • Straight Gay: Farnsworth and his partner, Trevor.
  • They Would Cut You Up: The issue comes up when Thomas is captured. His prison is comfortable, but scientists subject him to scalpels and syringes for years.
  • Tragic Hero: Thomas, whose naivete about humans and their ways and pastimes is his flaw (while this trope precludes him from being The Woobie, by the end he certainly warrants a hug).
  • Uncanny Valley: What happens when you cast David Bowie as a waif-like alien visitor. Even in his human disguise, the long black coat and hat that Thomas arrived in are... not quite right for the context. When we first see him, he's disguised as human, but his thinness and clothes make him look like a scarecrow, which serves to remind the audience visually of Thomas' otherworldly origin.
  • Unusual Eyebrows: In his true form, Thomas has no eyebrows (it's part of his overall hairlessness).
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Due to his alien physiology, car rides over 30 miles an hour and elevator rides are enough to make Thomas faint.
  • We Are as Mayflies: The film takes place over the course of several decades, during which the major characters age from young adults into old age. Newton, however, remains the same.
  • Zeerust: The alien tech Thomas brings to Earth, such as self-developing camera film and a music player that uses little spheres instead of vinyl records, comes off as this now.

Alternative Title(s): The Man Who Fell To Earth