The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a 1976 British science fiction film[3] directed by Nicolas Roeg and written by Paul Mayersberg,[4] based on Walter Tevis's 1963 novel of the same name,[5] about an extraterrestrial who crash lands on Earth seeking a way to ship water to his planet, which is suffering from a severe drought.[6] The film retains a following for its use of surreal imagery and the performance by David Bowie (in his first starring film role) as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton; the film also stars Candy Clark, Buck Henry, and Hollywood veteran Rip Torn.[7] The same novel was later remade as a less successful 1987 television adaptation.

The Man Who Fell to Earth
Original British theatrical release poster by Vic Fair
Directed byNicolas Roeg
Produced by
Screenplay byPaul Mayersberg
Based onThe Man Who Fell to Earth
by Walter Tevis
Music by
CinematographyAnthony B. Richmond
Edited byGraeme Clifford
Distributed byBritish Lion Films
Release date
  • 18 March 1976 (1976-03-18)
Running time
138 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$1.5 million[2]

The film was produced by Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings,[4] who reunited two years later to work on The Deer Hunter. Despite a mixed critical response upon release, the film is now considered an important work of science fiction cinema and one of the best films of Roeg's career.


Thomas Jerome Newton is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth from a distant planet on a mission to take water back to his home planet,[8] which is experiencing a catastrophic drought.[9] Throughout the film are brief sequences of his wife and children back on his home planet, suffering, perhaps dying.

Newton uses the advanced technology of his home planet to patent many inventions on Earth, and acquires tremendous wealth as the head of a technology-based conglomerate, World Enterprises Corporation, aided by leading patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth. His wealth is needed to construct a space vehicle with the intention of shipping water back to his home planet. While revisiting New Mexico, he meets Mary-Lou, a lonely, unloved, and simple girl who works as a maid, bell-hop, and elevator operator in a small hotel; he tells her he is English. Mary-Lou introduces Newton to many customs of Earth, including church-going, alcohol, and sex. She and Newton live together in a house Newton has built close to where he first landed in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nathan Bryce, a former womaniser and college professor, has landed a job as a fuel technician with World Enterprises and slowly becomes Newton's confidant. Bryce senses Newton's alienness and arranges a meeting with Newton at his home where he has hidden a special X-ray camera. When he steals a picture of Newton with the camera, it reveals Newton's alien physiology. Newton's appetite for alcohol and television (he is capable of watching multiple televisions at once) becomes crippling and he and Mary-Lou fight. Realizing that Bryce has learnt his secret, Newton reveals his alien form to Mary-Lou. Her initial reaction is one of pure shock and horror. She tries to accept what she sees, but ultimately panics and flees. He leaves her.

Newton completes the spaceship and attempts to take it on its maiden voyage amid intense press exposure. However, just before his scheduled take-off, he is seized and detained, apparently by the government and a rival company; his business partner, Farnsworth, is murdered. The government, which had been monitoring Newton via his driver, holds Newton captive in a locked luxury apartment, constructed deep within a hotel. During his captivity, they keep him sedated with alcohol (to which he has become addicted) and continuously subject him to rigorous medical tests, cutting into the artificial applications which make him appear human. Eventually, one examination, involving X-rays, causes the contact lenses he wears as part of his human disguise to permanently affix themselves to his eyes.

Toward the end of his years of captivity, he is visited again by Mary-Lou, who is now much older and whose looks have been ravaged by alcohol and time. They have mock-violent, playful sex that involves firing a gun with blanks, and afterwards occupy their time drinking and playing table tennis. Mary-Lou declares that she no longer loves him, and he replies that he doesn't love her either. She leaves him. Eventually Newton discovers that his "prison," now derelict, is unlocked, and he leaves.

Unable to return home, a broken and alcoholic Newton creates a recording with alien messages, which he hopes will be broadcast via radio to his home planet. Bryce, who has since married Mary-Lou, buys a copy of the album and meets Newton at an outside restaurant in town. Newton is still rich and young looking despite the passage of many years. However, Newton has also fallen into depression and alcoholism and the film ends with an inebriated Newton passing out in his cafe chair.



Paramount Pictures had distributed Roeg's previous film, Don't Look Now (1973) and agreed to pay $1.5 million for the US rights. Michael Deeley used this guarantee to raise finance to make the film.[2]

Filming began on 6 July 1975.[10] The film was primarily shot in New Mexico, with filming locations in Albuquerque, White Sands, Artesia and Fenton Lake.[11][12] The film's production had been scheduled to last eleven weeks, and throughout that time, the film crew ran into a variety of obstacles: Bowie was sidelined for a few days after drinking bad milk; film cameras jammed up; and for one scene shot in the desert, the movie crew had to contend with a group of Hells Angels who were camping nearby.[13]

Bowie, who was using cocaine during the movie's production, was in a fragile state of mind when filming was underway, going so far as to state in 1983 that "I'm so pleased I made that [film], but I didn't really know what was being made at all".[14] He said of his performance:

I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time. It was the first thing I'd ever done. I was virtually ignorant of the established procedure [of making movies], so I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated. I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling. It wasn't that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance. ... a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams [of cocaine] a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.[15]

Candy Clark, Bowie's co-star remembers things differently: "David vowed to Nic, 'No drug use'," says Clark and he was a man of his word, "clear as a bell, focused, friendly and professional and leading the team. You can see it clearly because of (DP) Tony Richmond’s brilliant cinematography. Look at David: his skin is luminescent. He’s gorgeous, angelic, heavenly. He was absolutely perfect as the man from another planet." She added that Roeg had hired "an entirely British crew with him to New Mexico and I remember David was very happy about that."[16]

Bowie and Roeg had a good relationship on set. Bowie recalled in 1992 that "we got on rather well. I think I was fulfilling what he needed from me for that role. I wasn't disrupting ... I wasn't disrupted. In fact, I was very eager to please. And amazingly enough, I was able to carry out everything I was asked to do. I was quite willing to stay up as long as anybody."[15]


Although Bowie was originally approached to provide the music, contractual wrangles during production caused him to withdraw from this aspect of the project. The music used in the film was coordinated by John Phillips,[17] former leader of the pop group The Mamas & the Papas,[18] with personal contributions from Phillips and Japanese percussionist-composer Stomu Yamash'ta as well as some stock music. Phillips called in former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor to assist with developing ideas for the soundtrack. The music was recorded at CTS Lansdowne Recording Studios in London, England.

Due to a creative and contractual dispute between Roeg and the studio, no official soundtrack was released for the film, even though the 1976 Pan Books paperback edition of the novel (released to tie in with the film) states on the back cover that the soundtrack is available on RCA Records. The soundtrack, derived from recently rediscovered masters, was eventually released on CD and LP in 2016 to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the film's premiere.[19][20] The music by Yamash'ta had already appeared on his own albums, as noted below.

Special electronic and oceanic effects were done by Desmond Briscoe and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


According to Michael Deeley, when Barry Diller of Paramount saw the finished film he refused to pay for it, claiming it was different from the film the studio wanted. British Lion sued Paramount and received a small settlement. The film obtained a small release in the United States through Cinema V in exchange for $850,000 and due to foreign sales the film's budget was just recouped.[2]

The British Board of Film Censors passed the film uncut for adult UK audiences with an X rating.[1]

It was announced in the summer of 2016 that the film was in the process of being digitally remastered to 4K quality for its 40th anniversary (which was reported to have begun before Bowie's death). This remastered version premiered at BFI Southbank before being released in cinemas across the UK on 9 September of that year.[21]


Critical response

Since its original 1976 release, The Man Who Fell to Earth has achieved cult status.[22][23] On film review site Rotten Tomatoes, the film has achieved an 83% rating based on 58 reviews, the critical consensus stating: "Filled with stunning imagery, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a calm, meditative film that profoundly explores our culture's values and desires."[24] Metacritic reports an 81 out of 100 rating based on 9 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[25] It was entered into the 26th Berlin International Film Festival. David Bowie won the Saturn Award for Best Actor for his work in the film.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film 2½ stars of four; while he complimented parts of the film and the directing, he was dismissive of the plot, writing in his review that the film is "so preposterous and posturing, so filled with gaps of logic and continuity, that if it weren't so solemn there'd be the temptation to laugh aloud."[26] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three stars out of four and wrote that it "may leave you punch drunk, knocked out by its visuals to the point of missing what a simple story it is."[27] Richard Eder of The New York Times praised the film, writing, "There are quite a few science-fiction movies scheduled to come out in the next year or so. We shall be lucky if even one or two are as absorbing and as beautiful as The Man Who Fell to Earth."[28] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times described Bowie as "perfect casting" but thought the film was "a muddle," and suspected it was because he reviewed a version trimmed by 20 minutes for its U.S. run: "That would do a lot to explain why the movie proceeds from the provocatively cryptic to the merely incomprehensible."[29] Kim Newman of Empire gave the movie five stars out of five, describing the film as "consistently disorientating and beguilingly beautiful."[30]


Its status as a cult classic has been echoed by critics, especially as it was a popular hit with Midnight movie audiences years after it was released.[31] Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out believed its status as cult classic does it disservice, describing it as "the most intellectually provocative genre film of the 1970s."[32] When re-released in 2011, Ebert gave the film three stars, stating that readers should "consider this just a quiet protest vote against the way projects this ambitious are no longer possible in the mainstream movie industry."[23] The movie has been applauded for its experimental approach[23] and compared to more recent sci-fi films such as Under the Skin.[33][34] Rolling Stone ranked it second on its 50 best sci-fi movies of the 1970s,[35] Timeout ranked it 35th on its 100 best sci-fi movies,[36] it is 61st on the Online Film Critics Society list of "greatest science fiction films of all time".[37] Empire placed it 42nd on its list of 100 best British films.[38] British Film Institute included it on its list of "50 late night classics"[39] demonstrating its popularity as a midnight movie.


  1. "THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (X)". British Board of Film Classification. 13 February 1976. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  2. Michael Deeley, Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies, Pegasus Books, 2009 p 116-127
  3. Fountain, Clarke. "The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)". All Movie. Retrieved 8 September 2017.
  4. "The Man Who Fell to Earth". Turner Classic Movies. United States: Turner Broadcasting System. Retrieved 5 March 2018.
  5. Tevis, Walter (1963). The Man Who Fell to Earth. Robbinsdale, Minnesota: Fawcett Publications. ASIN B0007EK4QY.
  6. Rozen, Leah (1 October 1976). "'Man who Fell' baffling". Daily Collegian. Penn State University.
  7. Blackburn, Olly (9 July 2008). "Olly Blackburn meets Nic Roeg". Time Out London. Archived from the original on 6 October 2012. Retrieved 10 July 2008.
  8. Edwards, Henry (21 March 1976). "Bowie's Back But the Glitter's Gone; Bowie's Back But the Glitter's Gone". The New York Times.
  9. Eder, Richard (6 June 1976). "'Man Who Fell to Earth' Is Beautiful Science Fiction". The New York Times.
  10. "David Bowie: inducted in 1996 | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". Retrieved 3 April 2015.
  11. "Fenton Lake State Park". NM State Parks.
  12. "Best-movie Oscar is film-office triumph". Santa Fe New Mexican. 3 March 2008.
  13. "The Man Who Fell To Earth". Bowiegoldenyears. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
  14. Loder, Kurt (12 May 1983), "Straight Time", Rolling Stone magazine, no. 395, pp. 22–28, 81
  15. Campbell, Virginia (April 1992), "Bowie at the Bijou", Movieline, vol. 3 no. 7, pp. 30–36, 80, 83, 86–87
  16. Clark, Candy, David Bowie's 'Man Who Fell to Earth' Co-Star on His 'Heavenly' First Movie Role
  17. "Obituary: John Phillips". The Independent (London, England). 20 March 2001. He recorded with his new partner Genevieve Waite and provided the soundtrack for Nic Roeg's 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
  18. Campion, Chris (8 September 2016). "Bowie and the missing soundtrack: the amazing story behind The Man Who Fell to Earth". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 20 September 2017.
  19. John Earls, David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ soundtrack released for the first time in 40 years," NME, 16 August 2016. Retrieved 14 December 2016.
  20. Chris Campion, "Bowie and the missing soundtrack: the amazing story behind The Man Who Fell to Earth," The Guardian, 8 September 2016. Retrieved 14 December 2016.
  21. Halliwell, Kate. "David Bowie's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" Returning to Theaters | IndieWire". Retrieved 20 September 2017.
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  27. Siskel, Gene (July 23, 1976). "A confusing but beautiful visit to a strange planet". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 3.
  28. Eder, Richard (29 May 1976). "Movie Review - The Man Who Fell to Earth - 'Man Who Fell to Earth' Is Beautiful Science Fiction -". Retrieved 3 April 2015.
  29. Champlin, Charles (July 7, 1976). "David Bowie Comes Down to Earth". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1, 12.
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  31. Telotte, J.P (1991). The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. University of Texas Press. pp. 104, 172. ISBN 978-0-292-76184-1.
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