BBC - Mark Kermode's film blog

« Previous | Main | Next »

Loving The Alien

Post categories:

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode | 12:07 UK time, Friday, 15 June 2012

Next Tuesday Nicolas Roeg's brilliant 1970s sci fi film The Man Who Fell To Earth is screening around the country. It's one of my all time favourites - a dark, strange work featuring an extraordinary performance by David Bowie.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit Mark's blog to view the video.


Related Posts on Kermode Uncut
Moon Music

Mark's reviews on 5 live
Take your pick from Kermode & Mayo's A-Z

Hear Mark Kermode review the week's new films every Friday from 2pm on BBC Radio 5 live. Kermode & Mayo's Film Review is also available as a free podcast to download and keep.



  • Comment number 1.

    "The Man That Fell To Earth" should've been the 2nd film for debate on the kermode film club blog rather than "Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me" but Mark, maybe this could be the 3rd film for the club in Aug?

    You're pretty much spot on here Dr K, the casting of Bowie in the lead role was nothing short of a masterstroke on Roeg's part. Casting a film correctly is essential if all the elements the director and writer want to bring to it are to be are to be realised, the only other person in my opinion that could've played this role is Gary Numan - who's androgenous and near emotionless persona would've (in my opinion) been equal to Bowie's. 70's sci-fi films were intelligent and thought provoking but Star Wars came along and changed everything, if Star Wars never happened, i wonder how many more great films like this would have been made?

  • Comment number 2.

    I cant think of any other director who has made four masterpieces in a row, each in a different genre, as Nic Roeg did starting with Performance, then Walkabout, Don't Look Now and culminating with The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Man Who Fell to Earth is exceptional science fiction, it is also a brilliant, very British, comedy of manners. " Believe it Mary Lou."

  • Comment number 3.

    This is one of my favourite films, I SO identify with Mr Newton, but then I do live in Cambridge and it has that affect on the mind!
    The film has an air of poetry about it and does indeed get better and better as time goes on, perhaps as we get older and see more of ourselves in the scenario.

    Excellent comment Russell, particularly your question about the wretched Star-Wars.

  • Comment number 4.

    Actually five - Bad Timing is a culmination not the falling off it often accussed of being.

  • Comment number 5.

    actually 7.. insignificance and castaway.. one of britains greatest directors, salute to Mr Roeg

  • Comment number 6.

    I think reducing the mixed reception of "The Man Who Fell to Earth" to other critics not understanding David Bowie's performance (which IS brilliant) is rather disingenuous. I would suspect it has more to do with the horrendous pacing problems the film has. It probably has a lot to do with a particular atmosphere of these kinds of 70s and 80s underground and experimental films, but I got the same feeling watching Roeg's film (the only one I've seen, so maybe I'll revisit it in the future) as I got watching Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Holy Mountain": it's visuals and performances are astounding, but not nearly enough to justify the entire sit through. As it stands, I could at least stay to the end of "Holy Mountain." "The Man Who Fell to Earth," on the other hand, I had to stop a half-hour before it ended. All of its good qualities had simply ceased to matter to me.

  • Comment number 7.

    I’m not convinced by the ‘Star Wars changed cinema forever’ meme. #1 &#3 (It used to be both Jaws and Star Wars – early major summer blockbusters – but as Jaws remains a fine piece of cinema it’s now more convenient to blame just Star Wars.)

    Another way of looking at things is without Star Wars the studios might not have later bankrolled Alien or Blade Runner, both seen as risky propositions at the time.

    True a MWFTE wouldn’t get made nowadays, not least because we don’t have any director with the (a horribly overused word in cinema nowadays) vision that Roeg had; nor a Ken Russell for that matter.

    I find MWFTE one of Roeg’s emptier films, a triumph of style over any real substance. Quite a few films of that era satirised American excess, expressed paranoia about mega-corporations and secret govt. departments and explored themes of alienation, corruption, self-destruction, yearning etc.

    Roeg wasn’t the only director playing with alternative styles of movie making with fractured, non-linear narrative narratives at that time. Antonioni also comes to mind.

    But what style MWFTE has. Gorgeous cinematography. A great soundtrack. Perfect casting (Not just Bowie but Candy Clark too).

    A lot to admire, but I think Don’t Look Now remains Roeg’s finest work. IMO.

    Suggestion for a future Film Club pick Dr K: Coppola’s The Conversation.

  • Comment number 8.

    Its a mesmerizing and devastatingly sad film to watch and Bowie is indeed magnificent. Love the line by Bowie, "never mind, we'd have done the same if we came to your place".

  • Comment number 9.

    Nic Roeg's best work was his early films with their fragmented editing and non-linear narratives staying on the right side of meandering and infuriating. As his films became more conventional so they became more boring and seemed to be built around his wife Theresa Russell.

    On a side note Nic Roeg was originally the DP on Dr Zhivago whilst Freddie Young was unavailable, Young later took over and went on to win an Oscar. How much if any of Roeg's footage is in the final film?

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm surprised you didn't mention Bowie's performance in Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" as Nikola Tesla. Oh, it's not the greatest screen performance in history. Maybe it's because he was standing near the brilliant Andy Serkis most of the time, but I do think he managed to hit all the right notes.

    But then again, Tesla was probably an alien too.

  • Comment number 11.

    Its so wonderful ,because its so creative ,in every way. The Starman did indeed shineth. Off tilter, theres a great song by Big Audio Dynamite called E=MC2, check out the lyrics !

  • Comment number 12.

    Dr K.
    I have an off-topic question, sorry to be abrupt: given that you are tired of apologizing for Russell Brand's performances, are you ever going to stop defending Adam Sandler movies just because he was in "Punch Drunk Love?"

  • Comment number 13.

    I've seen The Man Who Fell To Earth (maybe) three times. I don't care for it nearly as much as you do. I agree with another reader 'Ian Carsia' about the horrible pace of the film. There's quite a bit of aimless meandering, too. I think you have it wrong about the actor's (Bowie's) performance. Actors' performances are determined by what the director/editor choose to put onscreen. If the director doesn't like something the actor is doing they can just get another take. I think you'd have to be an actor of the stature of Tom Cruise working on a film with a powerless newbie director for the actor to be able to determine which take will be used in the final cut. And a great director like Ridley Scott can take someone extremely green (like Sean Young in Blade Runner) and make them appear like a seasoned pro. I hardly ever blame the actor. I give them credit for what I think is a 'great performance', but I ususally don't blame them for an awful outing. It's the director's fault.

  • Comment number 14.

    And I do know how to spell 'usually'. You need editing options on your blog, Kermode.

  • Comment number 15.

    It's not often that both book and film are so good. ( The Hustler is another favourite, both book and film superb.) Bowie is incredible. TMWFTE always reminded me of 1984 for some reason.

  • Comment number 16.

    “Actors' performances are determined by what the director/editor choose to put onscreen. If the director doesn't like something the actor is doing they can just get another take.” 13

    So Russell Brand could play Rooster Cogburn, or The Man With No Name (Leone), depending upon how he was directed?

    Occasionally a part fits an actor like a glove. The whole Ziggy Stardust/Starman history (plus reinvention) persona that Bowie had going (propbably accidentally) in the 70s plus his own persona fitted his part as Nweton.

    “I agree with another reader 'Ian Carsia' about the horrible pace of the film. There's quite a bit of aimless meandering, too.”

    That's part of the film's attraction (and distinctivness), to some. You’re not expected to like every movie ever made, having opinions are good. Roeg had a particular style and approach (as did Russell, Aldrich, Wells and many other influential directors.) You don't have to like it, just realise it's place and influence at that time.

  • Comment number 17.

    I loved this film. As a 15 year old Bowie fan (complete with Ziggy haircut) I trooped off to the cinema to see it with my mates back in 76. Back then, of course, it was mesmerising, especially to a 15 year old. And I read the book then too, which is slightly different to Roeg's interpretation, but still good.

    Now of course, I see it through different eyes, and see some flaws (I've watched it many times since). Yes, I agree it's the highest point of Bowie's acting career. Yes, the editing is a bit weird: one gets the feeling some important (at least to the continuity) scenes were cut out. But I disagree about the "aimless meandering": some of the most beautiful scenes are those where nothing much happens, but they help to evoke a mood. Just a scene, a view, a sound, almost painting with film... Few film makers can get away with it these days, with studios ever pushing directors to cram every moment with action and special effects. Lynch is one of the few who spring to mind.

    Much of the "billionaire lifestyle" on show is also outdated now, of course: we're familiar with so much of various instantly-forgettable celebrities ostentatious lifestyles from MTV etc, but back then nothing like it had been seen before.

    Now, I'm 51, and as much as I wanted to live in a lakeside Japanese house like Newton's, and have a table tennis room with dead leaves on the floor, and watch 30 TVs at once, sadly none of it came to pass. But this film was really formative in opening my narrow teenage vision up to more of the world, and that's why it will always hold a special place in my heart.

    My favourite scene is where Newton, travelling in his car, seems to slip through time, and his limo is seen by, and startles, some 18th or 19th century settlers, before it fades from view back to its own time.

    And Roeg's idea (weird at the time) of no matter who we are, or where we are, there's always someone watching us, has of course come true...

    I still love this film.

  • Comment number 18.

    I have to thank one of my older brothers for taking me to see Nic Roeg films when I was at a fairly tender age. Walkabout, which has some pretty harsh stuff (suicides) despite its GP rating in the States (ah the permissive '70's wouldn't get that now), I think I was ten (I'm supposing we saw on a second release), and The Man Who Fell To Earth when I was 13 (at a less permissive R). I remember its pacing being all over the place, some disappointment with the artsy rather than science fictiony alien stuff, but despite this I loved the ideas in it, the casual futurism and the media satire, and underneath it I felt this strange tragedy of his disconnection from his family, perhaps abandoned and dying on his home world, and I'm not even sure how much of that element there was, but it was something that stuck with me. Whether the experience warped me, I can't say, but then again I like Bad Timing despite some of its flaws.

    It's been at least ten years since I watched TMWFTE last on television, most Roeg is pretty unsatisfactory on the small box (Insignificance an exception, but it is a play adaptation), so I'll be trying to get to see it next week on the big screen.

  • Comment number 19.

    What I find fascinating are the themes of the angelic that glare out from the film, such as Newton's both literal and "Biblical-style" falling (i.e. from the Heavenly realm to dwell with, become corrupted by and ultimately become, human), and the fact that the more human he becomes, the more gendered/sexed he becomes (with, traditionally, the more angelic and closer to God one is, the more androgynous one is). There's also the glimpse of the painting of Icarus falling to earth that the Professor receives, which raises a few new themes. Vision, watching and being seen are also useful to look out for and tie into other strands. And such an unaffected performance by Bowie, a novice actor, just adds to the voyeuristic dimension of the film - no alienating acting techniques here, just rawness. There's a lot in this film; could talk about it all day. Love it!

  • Comment number 20.

    I would love to see TMWFTE on the big screen; alas, I don't live in the UK.
    It's still one of my favourite films of all time... my favourite role of Bowie's (aside from perhaps Labyrinth, but that was a childhood favourite), and just overall a really interesting film. I do think that they could have cut back on the sex a bit (did we really need to see Rip Torn shagging some college girls?). I've read the book, and it held together just fine without all the shagging.

    Now that I've read the comments, I think tonight I'll need to re-watch the film!

  • Comment number 21.

    It is available to watch on LOVEFILM just now for anyone with that option open to them.

  • Comment number 22.

    I like this film and I completely agree that Bowie is brilliant in it but I think it was it was simply a case of him being right for that specific part: fey, somewhat androgynous, definitely strange but undeniably charismatic. It was a great "performance" not a great "acting performance".

  • Comment number 23.

    A wonderfully imaginative film. Roeg is my favourite director (alongside Cronenborg and Kubrick) because all of their films have a unique and distinctive feel to them. Brave film-makers. This aspect of film-making is sadly lacking today, where many films appear exactly the same, as if made from the same rule book.
    TMWFTE really moved me and engrossed me. I think the pacing is fine. This is the only film in which David Bowie is any good (he's perfect in this) and was made at the peak of his powers.......what happened to Bowie after 1980? artistically, it's been all downhill for him since then.

  • Comment number 24.

    Some people say they think the editing or pacing doesn't help TMWFTE but I think that helps give the film its atmosphere. In this film we see the United States represented in a way rarely shown on screen yet how the country appears to many of the people who watch its movies: foreign, confusing, awe-inspiring and even frightening. It's not America (in this case representing Earth itself) through the eyes of its own people but through the eyes of a complete outsider for whom it is a strange, intimidating, alien place. No wonder Roeg saw "Cracked Actor" and thought Bowie would be perfect for the part.

    I also like the way it plays with a common genre convention. Bowie's character is, initially, the classic sci-fi alien who arrives on Earth with his highly-advance technology (albeit entirely in his head at first) but he still becomes bewildered, frightened and, ultimately, seduced by this more "primitive" culture.

  • Comment number 25.

    Really looking forward to the next film club now: I'm going to go on record and say that, for me, "Fire Walk with Me" is David Lynch's finest work. In a strange way, the film's as a prelude to the TV series seems to blind people to appreciating it as a stand-alone work of art.

  • Comment number 26.

    that should read "film's STATUS" - not sure what happened to that there!

  • Comment number 27.

    Sorry, im still reeling from the leather pants confession on fridays show.

  • Comment number 28.

    '70's sci-fi films were intelligent and thought provoking but Star Wars came along and changed everything'

    Don't buy it. Unless your idea of intelligent and thought-provoking is Logan's Run or Battle for the Planet of the Apes. A lot of early 70s SF movies were slow and pretentious and basically up themselves, too. There were good and bad SF movies made before Star Wars. There were also good and bad SF movies made after it. Star Wars did have an effect on the genre, but not such a simple one.

    Also, and I'm not saying it's true in this case, but I find people who complain that 'Star Wars killed the quality SF film' are usually the same ones who sing the praises of Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner, both of which were made in the post-Lucas dark age...

  • Comment number 29.

    No mention of the Labyrinth Mr Kermode! It was one of the staple of my childhood. Many a night-out has ended in me and my associates trying (unsuccessfully) to summon the King of the Goblins.

  • Comment number 30.

    It is a great film strange and powerful and very much of it's time. I find it comical that the pendulum should swing so much for Mr. Kermodes appreciation of Bowies performance as an actor. He mumbles almost nervously in all his performances... to say this is 'magnificent' or such is lacking a full understanding. The script and the casting play an equal role in making it work. It sells the process of film making short to instead prop up reviewing with sensationalist terms. It is still a great film, but in particular the UK needs to know better about the wider process that goes into film making to again bring about someone anywhere close to the likes of Roeg.

  • Comment number 31.

    I've loved The Man Who Fell To Earth for many years. Indeed, it is among a group of maybe twenty movies tops that I have to watch at least once every year. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be showing in Northern Ireland (us lot getting the short end of the stick again), so I'll be digging out my DVD copy, hopefully get a couple of friends round to watch it.

    David Bowie is magnificent in the lead role. I disagree with you his acting in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, but he was never better than he was in this. Roeg's decision making here, not just in perfect casting, but also in terms of following the subtly non-linear narrative outlined by Paul Mayersberg's script is wise, and he as a director displays his own control as an artist. Furthermore, the score by John Philips and Stomu Yamashta is at once both energetic and melancholic. The score is terribly hard to find (so if anyone knows a source, it would help greatly!), but I managed to track down Yamashta's 'Wind Words,' which is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard (fans will recognise):

    Finally, I still think that this is Nic Roeg's best movie, even taking into account Don't Look Now. Strong words, I know, but to me The Man Who Fell To Earth covers so many bases and is for my money one of the top ten films ever made.

  • Comment number 32.

    Mark there're two scenes in this film which define it for me.

    The first is the 'confusing' one which's stayed with me for decades showing Newton's limousine seemingly coming momentarily adrift in time as it appears to pass through a scene from the Wild West - the idea being Newton's alien science's having the same shocking impact on Earth's primitive 20th Century natives as one of our state of the art limousines'd have on 19th Century backwater hillbillies.

    The other's Newton playing with the gun while pointing it at the hillbillyesque Mary-Lou which rather presciently reminds me of Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson.

  • Comment number 33.

    Was I alone in thinking that Michael Fassbender's David character in Prometheus took a lot from Newton? The hair especially.

  • Comment number 34.

    There's something quite gripping about anthropomorphic aliens in the movies. Bowie's performance (no pun intended) is breath-taking.
    Although not a great film I was nonetheless also intrigued by the idea of Johnny Depp's alien possession in the Astronaut's Wife and I have a soft spot for Kevin Spacey's Prot on K-Pax though again not a brilliant film.
    Then there's Sharlto Copley's alien transformation in the excellent District 9.
    Anyone got other favourites?

  • Comment number 35.

    That's a sub-sentence you don't hear every day: "...films like Quatermass and the Pit, Plague of the Zombies, Passport to Pimlico".

  • Comment number 36.


  • Comment number 37.

    Well, I've just seen it, and it was a bit of an out of body experience for me, watching the film and vying with my memories of having watched it over thirty five years ago. I've realized a couple of things:

    1. It's still great, even the stuff that "dates" it doesn't seem to matter as it's almost like a story from an alternate timeline or universe.
    2. I know I've caught bits of it on TV over the years, but I'm now sure that this is the first time I've seen the whole thing since the original release. I have no memory of the last act, everything after Buck Henry's unfortunate exit seemed new to me, particularly Rip and Candy under loads of aging makeup.
    3. It's not as obtuse as I was expecting, over time its reputation, plus some of my vague memories of the alien world stuff made me regard it in that art house field somewhere near Antonioni. It's much more coherent and has a clear dramatic throughline for about 3/4s of it. It does get a little bit unclear as to whether Newton is a victim, a prisoner or a dissolute eccentric during that last section, or how or why he's being used by Bernie Casey. One moment he's having medical procedures forced on him, another he maniacally claims that he can do anything and get away with it. I almost expected DiCapprio as Howard Hughes to stumble into a scene.
    I'm not sure whether the intercutting earlier on between Bowie and Rip Torn's co-ed bothering amounts to anything, at times it seemed like Bowie was somehow reacting to the character he had not yet met as if glomming onto the experience, other times it just seemed to be intercutting for the sake of making the two strands leaven each other Bowie's ennui against Torn's titillation.
    4. The ending does seem a little like an in joke to tie Bowie's character to his "real life" persona, from spaceman to muso.... but somehow I can't fault it for that, and it may be an interpretation we can throw at it now, in the same way that when there's a Christmas scene near the end, I suddenly wanted them to sneak a little Bowie and Bing doing Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth into the background, and my irrelevant pop culture mash up wishes were partially granted as a moment later Bing did show up on the soundtrack singing True Love.
    5. Candy Clark is a good actress, although I think she's had a bad rep as she sometimes plays characters that have a flat delivery (typical of the mid west). She does manage to seem like she's struggling when carrying Bowie, who we all know weighs next to nothing, in fact scientists used to use his weight as a unit to calibrate 10kg.
    6. We really need Nic Roeg back, or maybe just the good bits of the spirit of the '70's when films from studios had a wide variety of ambitions before the blockbuster model crystallized profit as the sole goal of Molloch in Hollywood.

  • Comment number 38.

    I love this film, I even own the new out of print Criterion Collection edition with Walter Tevis' book. It's such a visually beautiful film, sort of like an adult E.T. Bowie does give a terrific performance, and seeing him go drunk is heartbreaking and tragic.

  • Comment number 39.

    @brian re: 37

    Regarding the intercutting between Bowie and rip torn, I think that was to represent the peculiar effect of alcohol on Newton, which also pre-empts his downfall; namely his surrender to sensation and carnal pleasures.

    My reading of it is alcohol gives Newton a form of telepathy, whereby he can share the experiences (emotional and sensual) of others, which happens to be Torn in this instance. Presumably it is this that he becomes addicted to; drunk on pleasure, figuratively and literally....

  • Comment number 40.

    Ps Glasgow's showing started nearly an our later than scheduled. A fault was to blame seemingly (I had an image of digital film falling off the digital reel and having to be digitally wound on by digital projectionists). Bear in mind it was almost a full house initially, half the audience left in disgust, which is a real shame.

  • Comment number 41.

  • Comment number 42.

  • Comment number 43.

    This was on BBC2 26/05/13:

    Thanks for the recommendation - it was a brilliant film. Very different and Bowie just unbelievably good fit for the role. It deserves another viewing as it's not easy to work out what is what first time watching which considering so many movies are thinner than a piece of paper is a good result.

    Thanks again: Put me in a strange place watching this, in a good way.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.