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The Man Who Fell to Earth

Earth hours sure are long, and in the case of Nicholas Roeg’s "The Man Who Fell to Earth“, there are two and a half hours of them. So just imagine what an entire lifetime must feel like to someone who doesn't belong here and just wants to go home. It might be fair to call it interminable.

Jerome Newton (David Bowie) has come to Earth for the singular purpose of earning enough money so he can bring water back to his home planet. In the meantime, he must simply wait in this alien world he has become stranded on, with nothing to feel towards those who now surround him and even less to do. Since he cannot afford to grow attached to anything while he is here, neither will his audience. We can only watch him as he waits, and as we sit and observe his sole habits of watching endless television and drinking bottle after bottle of gin, the way we pass our time may even seem similarly unbearable in its unenthusiastic approach to living.

It’s almost as if the film can see us. We might even worry it is casting judgement on how we have come here to pass our time with this wasted and empty life that it presents. It’s possible its even making fools of us by elegantly dressing up this cypher of a film in mysteries and obfuscations so we can’t help but crack our skulls against it in hopes of making sense of what it all means. I know I did, and how terrifying it was when it turns out there is nothing much else to be said here beyond this very act of watching and waiting. My head bandages are still sticky from all the blood.

This emptiness of the film can still be a strangely transfixing thing though. Like Kubrick’s monolith, there is something imposing about the movies inscrutability. Even as we scratch at its surface, hoping to uncover the mystery it is concealing, but only finding its black flatness unrelenting and immovable the further we dig, we can still admire its complete blankness in this way.

In the end the film will prove to have only one emotion to reveal to us, and I guess we should be happy it has decided to give us even this much. It will be a sense of loneliness so impenetrable we can only stare at it and barely move as we contemplate its enormity. It is almost alien in how absolute it feels. In fact, it will hardly feel like anything at all, instead peddling a sensation that is almost an absence of everything. Unlike the kind of loneliness films that want us to like them offer, this will not even grant its viewers the balm of being allowed to relate with this homesick alien. This would be too easy on us. Roeg doesn’t so much want us to relate to Newton as he'd prefer we simply waste away with him. Which, over the course of its two and a half hours, we most definitely will do.

One of the criticisms The Man Who Fell to Earth is most likely to face will be its basic lack of any narrative momentum, but claiming the film is lacking story would be completely wrong. The movie, in fact, has many stories, each of them related directly to Newton. There is the woman whose love affair with him sends her towards alcoholism. A womanizing professor who tries to find purpose by seeking a job at his mysterious corporation. And the patent lawyer who has grown inordinately wealthy due to his affiliation with this alien visitor. But all of these stories will be out of reach, each orbiting Newton’s desolate life like distant stars. We will catch glimpses of them floating out there in the ether, presumably along with the television waves that deliver him his regularly scheduled commercial breaks. In fact, this is what these lives seem almost reduced to, serialized interruptions of his mission, viewed passively and without any perceived emotion. And as it will turn out, whatever they are selling, he will not be buying.

Caught between the encroaching memories of life back on his home planet, and the distance he feels to everything that surrounds him on this one, the profound sense of isolation can only be compounded as the film inches on. By contrasting Newton’s life to all of these lives which flicker and then dim alongside of him, we will get a clearer sense of how long he has been waiting to go home, especially as they carry on without him, grow older and leave him sitting forever in the place where they left him. And as the credits begin to roll, and we are left with one final image of Newton, head drooped and undoubtedly hopeless, while those of us in the audience may feel a heavy weight has been lifted from us, we can now after all continue on with our own lives, it's clear he will be sitting in this place forever, waiting and drinking and learning what it means to be sad on Earth. Purgatory, after all, is a lot longer than two and a half hour.