Falling to Earth Again

Every so often, a contribution gets spiked or falls into limbo, and the text hangs around not being read on the harddrive. I ended up writing about The Man Who Fell to Earth in Solar Flares, “Unimportant Failures: The Fall and Rise of The Man Who Fell to Earth”, Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelisation and “The Man Who Fell To Earth: The Messiah and the Amphicatastrophe”, Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. I discuss the more famous, 1976, version here.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (David Gerber Productions/MGM Television, 1987)
Adapted from Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

(Dir. Bobby Roth; Sc. Richard Kitter; Pr. Christopher Chulack; Cin. Frederick Moore; P.D. John Mansbridge; SFX. Charles E. Dolan; starring Lewis Smith (John Dory); James Laurenson (Felix Hawthorne); Robert Picardo (Agent Richard Morse); Bruce McGill (Vernon Gage); Wil Wheaton (Billy Milton); Beverly D’Angelo (Eva Milton))

This television movie, intended as a pilot for a series which never materialised, both moves closer to, and further away from, the source material than the much better known and frankly superior Nicolas Roeg version. In the novel, Thomas Jerome Newton travels alone from Anthea to Earth and crash lands. His own planet is dying, and his mission seems to be to seek out a planet where the survivors can find refuge. On Earth Newton has to raise the money to build a transportation spaceship, by exploiting a number of patents of camera technologies via a company labelled World Enterprise, which he establishes with patents lawyer Oliver Farnsworth. Dr Nathan Bryce, a science-fiction reader and leading scientist, is one of those recruited to join the project, and is convinced from early on that Newton is an alien, at the very least a man from Mars. The lonely Newton eventually confirms this hypothesis. Meanwhile, Newton has been taken up with Betty Jo and has been introduced to the world of alcohol. Eventually the government authorities catch up with him, close down the spaceship project and begin an interrogation which accidentally blinds him. Newton is freed to wander America as a harmless eccentric.

The subtle indicators of time passing, such as make-up, which signify the decade or so duration of the Roeg film, are replaced with captions to make room for a year or so, and Roeg’s dialectical editing – which merges flash backs, flash forwards, simultaneous actions and fantasies and memories – is rejected in favour of a pared down, more or less invisible style. Mayersberg’s script is acknowledged, but few of his innovations are repeated.

Here the alien is John Dory – a syllable away from the traditional anonymous John Doe – who is the sole survivor of a crew of four explorers, seeking for an alternate to the meteor-ravaged planet, Anthea. Dory hitches a lift – from a female trucker whom he resurrects after her death in a crash – and makes his way to New York, buying his way with diamonds rather than gold rings. There he finds Felix Hawthorne, a patents attorney, and offers him a new computer chip and a means of converting fuel more efficiently. This will raise the $500 million that Dory wants to build a spaceship to rescue his son and his surviving people. Dory finds an apartment in the shadow of the World Trade Center and falls into friendship with Eva Milton, and her shoplifting son, Billy, which eventually becomes sexual with Eva. Meanwhile, the crash site has been found, and Dory’s television technology linked with the alien spaceship. Dory realises he is being spied on and, just before the mission is due to start, he is captured by one of his scientists, Vernon Gage, who tortures him in search of answers about his true identity. Gage is killed in the subsequent explosion, and Dory has to postpone the flight home.

The changing of the names loses any of Tevis’s symbolism, although Eva Milton points to Adam’s temptress of Genesis and Paradise Lost (1667), and Milton to John Milton, author of the latter. This is an Eve who does have sex with her Adam, but perhaps reluctantly, and the temptations of alcohol from the book and earlier film have little impact – inexplicably it is tomato juice that gets Dory to lose any inhibitions. As single-parent artist, Eva is less ignorant than Betty-Jo or Mary-Lou, and is not a sexual parcel to be passed around the male characters. That is not to say she has much more in the way of agency or actions to perform – although she gets a little comic business with the inevitable scream at the alien reveal. Gage has also lost the sexual prowess that the Roeg film granted Bryce, and as Gage has little in the way of character development – beyond being late for appointments and deciding to now wear a tie – the torture seems to come out of left field and reveals a sadistic streak that the audience has not exactly been prepared for. That this invented scene lifts dialogue from the novel – as indeed does much of Dory’s interview with Hawthorne – seems to point at the distance between the three versions. Finally, Hawthorne is no longer depicted as homosexual, and is somewhat thin in his characterisation. Aside from giving Dory statements of their worth, his role becomes mainly to warn him against getting attached to normal people.

Central to both films, of course, is the alien. Lewis Smith, who had been trained by Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and others, was then best known for his role in two miniseries based on John Jakes’s trilogy North and South (1985 and 1986). Thin and tall, he was good looking without the truly strange quality that David Bowie brought to the role – but then it would have been a mistake to duplicate the earlier version too closely. Dory, like Newton, has learned behaviour from watching television, and typically copies others’ actions after meeting them. In particular he has seen MTV, which enables him to engage in a certain amount of break dancing, giving the film a flavour of the teen and twenty something comedies of the period which starred actors such as Tom Hanks, Steve Guttenberg and Andrew McCarthy. The physical comedy sits rather oddly with the rest of the film. As in earlier versions of the narrative, the alien collapses in a lift, but here the explanation is to do with vertigo rather than gravity. Perhaps the vertigo is there to explain the crash – certainly it’s a device to link him to Eva and her son – but it is almost immediately forgotten as he chases Billy across a roof top and leaps between buildings.

The relationship between Dory and Eva’s son is the most significant addition to the novel. The role is played by Wil Wheaton, a year after his excellent performance in Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986) and before his regular appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94; Wheaton appeared 1987-90). As the film progresses he moves from leather jacketed street punk to checky shirted perfect son, thanks to the arrival of a father figure, an albeit alien one, and it is only jealousy over Dory’s need for his own biological (and probably dead) son that leads to a potential betrayal by Billy of Dory. Dory becomes inscribed as the perfect patriarch – giving advice, enforcing the law (of the land, and of the father), as financially stable provider and bread winner, and even as new man, as he emphasises how much Antheans need intimacy and caring. Indeed, he seems to miss his son more than his wife. Unfortunately the sequences with Dory and Billy recall two earlier, classic – indeed superior – sf adaptations. Firstly the alien who brings new technology and warns of a coming apocalypse whilst living among a normal family is surely an echo of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), in which Klaatu/Carpenter becomes a temporary father for Bobby. In both films the mothers seem worryingly trusting of alien strangers with their sons. Equally, Billy’s hanging from the edge of a building, followed by Dory successful leap across and then pulling up of his temporary enemy recalls the final battle between Deckard and Batty in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), although with much better weather.

It is ironic that Hawthorne tells the man from the National Security Agency, Agent Morse, that he has been watching too many Spielberg movies, for here The Man Who Fell to Earth follows the trope of many Spielberg movies in the reinscription of the nuclear family – Dory with Eva and Billy, and in time his own real son, the reunion prevented by the demands of what was planned to be an on-going series. It is difficult to speculate where the narrative would have gone next – it presumably would have demanded the repeated frustration of the space mission, and the need for Dory to use his superpowers – both via convenient crystals and from his own hands – to rescue his loved ones from dangerous situations. As the film stands, it does not exactly seem like a fruitful format for such adventures. It is, however, perhaps fair to say that any revisioning of the narrative would struggle to compete with a superlative visual stylist with a distinctive way of structuring their films, especially when the director is someone who has had to work within the constraints of television production.

Bibliography

  • Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth, (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).
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