Mary-Lou: “What are they like, your children?”
Newton: “They’re like children. Exactly like children.”
The 70s and early 80s were interesting times for speculative filmmaking. That period contained a series of artistic, pensive films that were the children of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alpahville, as well as a trio of films that would completely alter the landscape of the genre by creating an immense appetite for big-budget, space westerns that form the core of an entity now know as “sci-fi movies.”
Films like The Lathe of Heaven and Born in Flames distorted known landscapes into the otherness of future. While films like Silent Running made the future of robots and self-contained environments present. And as for the societal fears of a sexually emerging and violent youth…A Clockwork Orange.
One of the pinnacles of this type of speculative narration, in my opinion, is Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s film is significantly different from Tevis’ novel. On a grand scale, he makes you work as a viewer for meaning. Visual suggestion and subtle dialogue replace some of the more overt aspects of Tevis’ book. He also builds substantially on the implied sexuality of the novel. Newton and Betty Jo (renamed Mary-Lou in the film) have an intense physical relationship. Bryce, the professor turned World Enterprises Corporation obsessive, is no longer the widow, but a divorcee jumping from tryst to tryst with interchangeable coeds looking for someone who is both like their father and also nothing like him. And Farnsworth, Newton’s patent lawyer and business partner, has become a vulnerable homosexual partnered with a younger, stronger lover.
Part of Roeg’s brilliance in this film is casting. As a character, Newton is otherworldly (duh). He at times mimics human emotion, and at others, feels it more intensely (perhaps). Through money, he’s powerful. But his frail body and ignorance of human behavior make him exposed to manipulation and control. So it was a real stretch when Roeg courted David Bowie to play this androgynous, lost-in-the-world alien (ha!). Bowie is brilliant.
Roeg sets the film in New Mexico (as opposed to the Kentucky of Tevis’ novel). The landscape is like that of Newton’s world–a world beset by drought–, but here it is populated with cowboys and dusty main streets instead. As viewers, we’re often privy to the visions and dreams of Newton. In them, he often thinks about his family and the time he left for Earth. But does he miss them? Does he miss his world? Is he sad? Roeg gives us no clear answers. And, as in the novel, Newton sometimes just prefers to have a drink.