I have to admit that the first time I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth, back in the bad old days of pan-and-scan VHS, I was bewildered and bored. I don’t think I even made it to the part where Bowie takes off his human drag to reveal his true alien form. Now, it’s one of the very few movies I watch at least once a year, because it just gets weirder and more mysterious with every viewing. If you were at my place on these special occasions, you’d hear me asking questions like “Who is that guy who shows up twice without any explanation?” and “Hey, what happened to those genitals?”
Philip K. Dick loved the movie, too. He and his friend Kevin Jeter went to see it in the theater, just as in chapter nine of Dick’s novel VALIS, Dick’s alter ego, Horselover Fat, goes with his friend Kevin to see a movie called VALIS. The plot of the movie-within-the-book comes from Radio Free Albemuth, an abandoned early version of the novel VALIS, but the style of the movie comes from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Interviewer John Boonstra picked up on the connection in a 1981 interview:
The film VALIS inside the novel reminded me in its style of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
You got it. You got it. That’s where the idea came. It’s like Madame Bovary going to see Lucia—I remember that scene so well, how it crystallized all the nebulous things that were floating around in Madame Bovary’s mind. Now, that impressed me enormously.
I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and thought it was one of the finest films—not just science-fiction films, but one of the finest films I had ever seen. I thought it was incredibly original, incredibly provocative, rich in ideas, beautiful in texture, glorious in its overall conception. It was enigmatic. In no way is the film VALIS the plot and theme of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the idea occurred to me that a science-fiction film, if well done, could be as rich a source of knowledge and information as anything we normally derive our knowledge and information from. The film tremendously impressed me; I just loved it. My use of the film VALIS is my homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to see that.
According to biographer Lawrence Sutin, Dick so loved the movie that after he saw it he began scrutinizing Bowie’s catalog for clues from VALIS, which, before it was the book or the movie-within-the-book, was one of Dick’s names for the extraterrestrial or supernatural entity he communicated with. VALIS (an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System) was the aspect of the Great Whatsit that took the form of a satellite and sent information in beams of pink light. (If you don’t know about Dick’s epiphanic episodes, check out R. Crumb’s comic “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” or, if you’re really interested, try Dick’s Exegesis.) Sutin writes:
Phil loved [The Man Who Fell to Earth], and for a short time he and [Kevin] Jeter listened closely to Bowie albums, hoping to discern a sly pop sign from God/Valis/Zebra. No luck. But a failed experiment can be a useful plot device, and in Valis [Horselover] Fat and Kevin go to see a movie called Valis, which portrays the struggle between the Albemuth characters Nicholas Brady (who is zapped by the pink light force) and evil President Ferris Fremont. Fat gets in touch with rock star Eric Lampton and his wife, Linda, who both star in the film. Fat is convinced that they know about Valis—the Vast Active Living Intelligence System—and can rescue him from spiritual isolation.
In a 1982 interview with Boonstra—Dick’s last—the author says that he wanted Blade Runner (based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to live up to The Man Who Fell to Earth:
The thing I had in mind all of the time, from the beginning of it, was The Man Who Fell to Earth. This was the paradigm. That’s why I was so disappointed when I read the first Blade Runner screenplay, because it was the absolute antithesis of what was done in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In other words, it was a destruction of the novel. But now, it’s magic time. You read the screenplay and then you go to the novel, and it’s like they’re two halves to one meta-artwork, one meta-artifact. It’s just exciting.
Here’s an interesting interview with Dick from the 1977 science fiction festival in Metz, France, where he introduced his work-in-progress VALIS in the speech “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.”