The Man Who Fell to Earth: a satire on US cut-throat capitalist society and how it alienates, controls and dehumanises people

Nicholas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)

For a film with hardly much plot and maybe too much soft-core pornography, “The Man who Fell to Earth” manages to be an intriguing satire on American society and capitalism. An alien who has studied Earth through its radio-wave transmissions and whose planet is dying for lack of water farewells his family and travels millions of light-years to crash-land on Earth. Disguising himself as humanoid Thomas Jerome Newton, our alien (David Bowie) insinuates himself into US society as a wealthy if reclusive inventor, patenting original inventions that earn him and his company World Enterprises Corporation loads of moolah, some of which he uses to rebuild his spacecraft. In this project, he relies heavily on patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who becomes his business partner. In the meantime Thomas pines for his wife and children who appear to be the last survivors of their kind and are slowly dying in severe drought conditions, and tries to communicate with them by watching multiple TV channels; some of the TV programs mesh in their messages and through that connection he can send a message through the break in the space-time continuum to his wife and receive answers from her. His loneliness leads him to New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to alcohol and sex, and before long poor Newton is hopelessly hooked on trash TV culture, the demon drink and all the other sensual pleasures of the lowest common denominator in human culture.

Poor Mary Lou can’t provide much intellectual stimulation so Newton turns to Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a former womanising college professor whom he employs as his technician on the space-ship. Bryce senses Newton’s alienness so he invites him to his home and secretly photographs him with a special X-ray camera. Bryce passes on his information to the US government whose agents arrest Newton at the very moment he is about to board the space-craft that will take him home. Newton is held captive in a luxury apartment deep within a hotel, supplied with drink and endless television, and subjected to rigorous medical tests and experiments that injure his body and fuse his disguise with his own features. As for the people he trusts, Farnsworth is defenestrated by government agents and Mary Lou and Bryce fall into a loveless marriage. Eventually Newton escapes from his prison but faces the rest of his life alone – his family back home having died – and is depressed and hopelessly drunk.

The film’s plot survives by being fractured with various subplots, most of which don’t amount to much. (The whole narrative only exists because of this cut-n-paste fragmentation, and through the fragmentation the film’s underlying themes, ironic in themselves because of what they are, appear. William S Burroughs would surely have approved.) All major characters in the film are lonely and unhappy in some way, and seek connection with others through unfulfilling romance or sex or some other equally unsatisfying substitute activity. Mary Lou yearns for Thomas in spite of his alien nature and Thomas yearns to be back with his family. Bryce wants recognition but never quite gets it: he is rewarded handsomely for his services to the nation (ha ha) but he feels some guilt over Newton’s incarceration and uncertain fate. The atomised society in which they live caters to and encourages their neediness but there is a price they have to pay: they must conform to its demands if they want connection, comfort or wealth. Thomas pays the heaviest price for his manipulation of US corporate culture and self-enrichment by being forced to conform to human physical norms and being made dependent on alcohol and television so he himself can be manipulated and controlled. At the end of his imprisonment, having been made over from alien to complete human (and presumably with all the secrets of his alien physiology fully harvested by the US government), he is abandoned as a lonely drunk, left to his own devices and not even told that he is “free”.

As all the characters are essentially alienated from one another, and all are groping in their own darkness in their own ways, they are basically flat and blank, and so the action can be as dull as dishwater especially in scenes where Bowie does not appear. Roeg makes this point about the blankness of these people quite literally in the scene in which Newton strips off his human form to Mary Lou and reveals himself as a literal tabula rasa. That this is the only really interesting thing about Newton or indeed about any of the people he meets demonstrates how far dehumanised they have become. Bowie alone delivers an excellent performance as an alienated individual with a fragile mind who in the process of becoming human, whether through disguise or under manipulation from others, ends up truly blank, fragmented in mind and literally trashed. (Although Bowie was grappling with a severe cocaine addiction at the time, he was able to lay off the white stuff during filming and he actually looks healthy enough and beautifully ethereal for a scrawny 28-year-old English kid in the scenes that really matter, nudge nudge.)

The film works on a number of different levels that Roeg might not have realised at the time he made it: it works as a metaphor for individual alienation in a cut-throat manipulative and atomised capitalist society interested only in its inhabitants for whatever qualities they have which can be mined for profit; it’s an exploration of the loss of connection among humans which they try to fill with sex, and unfulfilling sex at that; and it shows, however superficially, how capitalist culture exploits people’s desire for connection, meaning and purpose with trash products and cultural forms to which they become addicted and are easily controlled as a result.

In style the film seems to mimic the breakdown of a person’s mind and at its end it is very flat and bleak. Along the way though there are scenes of beauty, natural and expansive as well as surreal and bizarre, and viewers should enjoy the journey even if they don’t understand what it’s about or what the final destination may be.