[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Nicolas Roeg’s extraordinary film is, amongst other things, a scathing satire and a science-fiction tragedy. Even the title is multi-layered. The hero is an extraterrestrial visitant who literally falls out of the sky; “falling to earth” implies a painful coming to senses; and “the man who fell” recalls “the Fall of Man,” which the plot allegorically depicts. There is also a lot of literal falling: the hero, his wife and his spacecraft tumble through various areas of space, vast and small; a central character is murdered by defenestration; crucial scenes involve descent by elevator, high-diving into a swimming pool, collapsing onto beds. The hero’s name on Earth is Thomas Jerome Newton—Thomas after the doubter, Jerome after the saint who compared men to insects, and Newton after the scientist who evolved the law of gravity after being conked by a falling apple (a symbolic enough item—the event took place in a garden, too!).
Newton was celebrated in Alexander Pope’s couplet, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night / Till God said, Let Newton Be, and all was light.” Thomas Jerome Newton seems to hold similar promise, but things don’t work out. Newton emerges from his fall to Earth carrying a British passport—a tall, spare, quiet ascetic, youthful as Dorian Gray and with a similar faintly androgynous handsomeness. He has a gift for making money. This is the purpose of his arrival on Earth, for his own unnamed planet is dying—much as the eco-warriors say ours is—and to save it, Newton has to ferry reserves of energy back to it from Earth. His technological wizardry has done nothing to save this planet, but it causes amazement here on Earth. In no time at all Newton, aided by a New York patents lawyer, has revolutionized every single one of the various communications industries, becoming a billionaire. But the effect is not to make all things light. Newton’s plan to finance a private space program fails and he is stranded on another dying planet, our own, having become one with the Earthlings. By film’s end he has become a human being and, by a terrible irony, he has lost his humanity.
Perception and loss: the twin themes of Nicolas Roeg. The hoodlum Chas in Performance gains understanding and tendresse immediately before being taken off to death. John Baxter in Don’t Look Now solves the mystery that has bedeviled him in the instant of his own murder. Both these films are directly recalled in the saga of Thomas Jerome Newton (Newton’s red hair is patently as false as Chas’s in his hideout period; like Baxter, he has brief ESP-style hallucinations), but the end is more like that of Walkabout, whose unnamed heroine, like Newton, does not die, but is crushed into a passive zombie-like state tinged by regret only in moments of furtive memory. Like her, Newton is at his most free and his most naked in the desert: it’s amidst the sands of New Mexico that he confesses the truth about himself to Dr. Nathan Bryce, the inquisitive scientist. Ironically, he has fled his own planet because it is turning into a desert. But it proves less desolate than the neon wasteland of New York, which literally becomes a prison for him. Captured by a mysterious organization—which might be the Mafia, might be the CIA, might be Big Business, what’s the difference?—Newton is endlessly subjected to a sort of benign torture in a succession of rooms arranged like the interlocking pieces of different jigsaw puzzles. Size varies bafflingly, as does style of decoration. In one room, empty save for a Ping-Pong table, nature itself has been subverted, turned into mere decor, the wallpaper being photographs of a California redwood forest. Truth is overwhelmed by lies: Newton’s smiling, patient torturers conduct their enormities behind a mask of kind concern, claiming to be medical men out to help him.