Academic journal article CineAction

Pop Star Is the Medium Is the Message: The Man Who Fell to Earth

Academic journal article CineAction

Pop Star Is the Medium Is the Message: The Man Who Fell to Earth

Article excerpt

In his 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth Walter Tevis uses a genre of science fiction to tell an allegory about the visitor from outer space who in 1985 (1) falls on Earth to look at us and show us how alien or alike we may look to an extraterrestrial. Tevis's extraterrestrial is not that much unlike the humans: "He was not a man; yet he was very much like a man ... he was human; but not properly a man. Also, man-like, he was susceptible to love, to fear, to intense physical pain and to self-pity." (2) Tevis goes on to describe this "Icarus descending" from the sky as six and a half feet tall, with a hair as white as an albino's, pale blue eyes and light tan facial skin, a hairless, almost translucent skin and improbably slight frame. We also find out that his fingernails are artificial, that he has four toes on his feet, no vermiform appendix, no wisdom teeth. His earlobes were synthetic, his nipples false, and his eyes irises opened vertically, like a cat's (6, 98). Thomas Jerome Newton, as this was the name he gave to the first human being he encountered, landed in Haneyville, Kentucky, an Anthean in human disguise.


Nicholas Roeg's 1976 film adaptation of Tevis' novel starts off with a brief montage of outer space shots including images of a space ship, its violent entrance into the Earth's atmosphere and crash landing into a lake-like water surface. Framed within an extreme long shot the viewers then see a tall, slim figure descending a barren hill next to something that looks like an abandoned mine. At first resembling a shot of Max Schreck from the silent classic W.F. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), preparing us thus for yet another movie about the undead coming to town to feed itself on the blood of the innocent virgins, as the camera comes closer to the hooded face in a medium shot we begin to recognize the pale facial features as, at the same time, iconic and alien but glamorous and pretty enough not to be confused with that immortal silent cinema representation of the undead. As the figure turns its back to the camera the hood is being removed to expose both a bright orange hair color on its head and the sign that reads Haneyville, village limit, elev. 2,850.

This opening recreates the entrance of a stranger coming into a new town typical of the classic Hollywood western. The first inhabitants the stranger meets look, however, more outlandish than the spindly figure in a duffel coat--we see an old-school traveling carnival with a blow-up space travel vehicle on which Moonwalk has been written, a drunk old man inside one of the amusement park cars, and an old, wrinkled, bespectacled lady looking suspiciously around her as she enters a jewelry store. The scene is thus, right from the opening credits sequence, set up for an interesting intercultural (intergalactic?) encounter. (3)

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian college professor, literary critic and so-called "prophet of the electronic age" published in 1964, a year after Tevis's publication of The Man Who Fell to Earth, arguably his best-known work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In it McLuhan rewrites the history of human civilization as related to the scientific discoveries of the media dominating the particular time period of human development. McLuhan's notion of the media as human extensions is complicated by the theory of technological determinism predicated on the premise that the dominant media technologies turn back to their creators by determining their ways of being human in history (i.e. the ways we perceive the environment, ourselves and others in it, the ways we process information, construct thoughts and feelings, and the ways we express and communicate them to us and among ourselves).

For McLuhan the media as our extensions are us and are central for understanding our cultures throughout history, as well as the relation between us as nature and technologies as products of culture. …

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