The word “cult cinema” is thrown about quite liberally in film criticism, but it takes a dense history to firmly qualify a given film as “cult.” Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi headtrip The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is certainly a cult film, as its audience was never “found” in a traditional, straightforward way (i.e., in its original theatrical release). The spotty, complex reception history of The Man Who Fell to Earth has a great deal to do not only with what it was, but when it was.
Based on the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, the film secured financing mostly because of the bankability of its star, David Bowie, in his first starring film role, yet the final product was something of a mystery and an infuriation for initial audiences and critics: a psychedelic bad-trip ruminating on sexual frustration, identity crises, and alcoholism. It was hardly the piece of science-fiction entertainment audiences were used to, as the storytelling frequently cut away to impenetrable, chaotic imagery that was elusive in meaning in Roeg’s signature idiosyncratic visual style.
A formal experimenter working with non-experimental material, Roeg made something that was, historically speaking, an anomaly. Just as Roeg’s semi-experiments belonged in neither the movie theater nor the Whitney Museum, The Man Who Fell to Earth sat in a curious liminal space between 1970s sci-fi and New Hollywood countercultural cinema while comfortably embodying neither.
Not of This Earth
Pre-Star Wars 1970s science fiction has an interesting and underexamined place in genre history. In films like The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and Silent Running, dystopian themes mix with conventional genre-adventure structures alongside the occasional dose of emergent liberal awareness reflective of the times. The Man Who Fell to Earth, by contrast, is hardly interested in conventional structure or even many of the traditional grand themes of science-fiction, replacing the three acts with stream-of-consciousness and a presentation of dystopian futures with the shared misery of the present.
With its formalist free-play, its explicit depictions of sexuality, and its casting of a popular but at that time still sub/countercultural musician, one would think The Man Who Fell to Earth would fit right in with New Hollywood risk-taking and experimentation, but genre films are typically not canonized as works of that much-celebrated movement and the film never explicitly interacts with political themes specific enough (though the film is, as I will later illustrate, implicitly political) to warrant a status alongside films like Network, Taxi Driver, or All the President’s Men (all released the same year). As much a curiosity piece as a venerated work of art whose brilliance has only been realized decades after its (butchered) initial release, The Man Who Fell to Earth’s cult status can best be characterized by a strict definition that should apply to all films in order to earn the cult title: a bastard child, formerly without a home, that doesn’t belong in its own time.
Of course, still being a true work of science fiction, The Man Who Fell to Earth does engage with big genre themes through allegory, in this case the theme of alienation. The first human that alien Thomas Jerome Newton meets upon his arrival in humanoid form to the deserts of New Mexico is a drunk in a broken down theme park ride, and it is through this striking image and through such a perspective of Earth that the inherent strangeness of our home planet is strikingly realized throughout the film.
The intention, it would seem, of casting David Bowie is to use his own peculiarity in both his appearance and his career outside the film as a shorthand for establishing the character’s “alien” nature, so that the very aura of the character can be initiated as not-quite-human. But the humans that compose the often post-apocalyptically barren landscape of The Man Who Fell to Earth are all just as idiosyncratic – none possess a connected defining thread of what it means to be human. In appearance, mannerism, personality, and demeanor, all are strikingly different. This is not, however, some sort of culturally valued uniqueness via individualism, but a characterizing trait that establishes a thematic union between them made up of anxiety and insecurity: they are all, in some way, alienated. Sexually (and all of Roeg’s films are particularly preoccupied with themes of sexuality), these characters are in their own ways incapable of expressing themselves in any meaningful fashion.
Thus, if all these characters feel alienated, and if all stay in an individual vacuum unconnected to other humans, and if there are no distinct human attributes to aspire to within such an unconnected world, then what it means to be human is an elusive concept if it’s even a question that’s asked at all in the universe of this film. While many science fiction narratives obsess over dystopian solutions to problems of overpopulation, The Man Who Fell to Earth presents an Earth in which humans are far between, separated by difference and unable to communicate. It is thus quite an interesting turn that Newton is finally found out as an alien because he doesn’t age: he is suspect because of his sameness, not his difference.
While New Hollywood and the counterculture (and Bowie himself through his music) fixated upon forming unique identities in a culture of conformity, The Man Who Fell to Earth’s anomaly status has a great deal to do with the fact that it instead presents a world of stifling and unintended individuality via solitude – a world of cold difference. After reaching Earth, Bowie’s Newton thus becomes merely one alien amongst many, joining a world already populated by unrecognizable strangers.
This interpretation may make The Man Who Fell to Earth a conservative film (that is, if one ignores the fact that the theme of alienation is tied to a story of corporate capitalism and the supporting characters’ cold desire for the accumulation of wealth), but amongst the desolate New Mexico landscape the film may actually be serving up a more intricate and subtle post-apocalyptic vision of its own: the question of what to do with collective, connected human identity after the influence of the counterculture, finding no solution to the crisis of redefining what connects us as humans in the wake of plurality. This is not a film that denounces the counterculture, of course, but asks us what to do with it once we’ve realized the true scope of inherent human difference. Decades after its release we may be asking ourselves the same question, for while our world feels as one of greater proximity than the one depicted in The Man Who Fell to Earth, we do indeed reside in a place where shared humanity is hardly ever realized and people often speak without actually hearing, caring to hear, or even realizing the presence of one another. As Newton notices in his first moments on Earth, we indeed occupy a landscape of shared alienation.