Bring Back Human Error

“The pervasive mood at the turn of the decade is not one of triumph but one of deep uneasiness, sometimes giving way to profound alarm,” Leonard Freedman wrote in the think-tank anthology Issues of the Seventies, “a sense of things coming apart at the seams, of bewilderment, of disorientation”. The reason given in the book for this baleful zeitgeist was a double fear concerning technology’s “inability to solve human problems” and “the threat to human welfare that it harbors,” including the fact that “the advent of mass communications enhances the possibility of mass manipulation by elites who control the communications systems through wealth, military power, or technological expertise”. Newton has been manipulated into traveling to Earth by the picture of human life portrayed on television. But “the strange thing about television,” Newton remarks, “is that it doesn’t tell you everything.” Adding more screens – in one sequence, involving the overlapping sounds and sights from twelve TVs simultaneously broadcasting images of sex and violence— only leads to Newton’s despairing shriek, “Get out of my mind, all of you!”

“But They do get into his body. In an ingenious reversal of the novel, in which Newton is accidentally blinded by X-rays, a medical team somehow welds Newton’s contact lenses to his eyes. They’ve forced Newton into the nightmare of a fake humanity, stripping him of his ability to self-identify as Other by looking at or displaying his own body. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, the alien being created to resemble the protagonist’s wife claims that “I am becoming a human being.” In The Man Who Fell to Earth, something resembling this sentence is recast as a nightmare of assimilation in a paradoxical process involving the dehumanization of an alien.

“The fate of another character, the sexually venial college professor and scientific researcher Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), exists as a human counterpoint to that of Newton. Newton and Bryce appear to have some kind of quasi-telepathic link: Newton can hear weak transmissions of Bryce’s voice from a distance, while Bryce intuits Newton’s extraterrestrial origins, making a joke out of asking him if he’s “Lithuanian.” We encounter Bryce complaining to an administrator, Professor Canutti (Jackson D. Kane), about the computerization of teaching performance evaluations. In glimpses of campus flings edited to appear repetitive, Bryce’s life is chopped up into a series of punch-card episodes in which college is just another mode of programming. Bryce seeks refuge from bureaucratic automation in Newton’s company, attracted to World Enterprises’ insistence on “dumping computers and installing human beings … they want to bring back human error.” In joining Newton’s project to build a spaceship, Bryce isn’t interested in the profit motive so much as the utopian dream of going “back to man, and to his imagination”—a more positive version of the “Uncodable Response” that the computers reject in The Andromeda Strain.

Text: J. M. Tyree, Information Managers: The Andromeda Strain and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Summer 2012), pp. 43-47.

Image: The Man Who Fell To Earth, Dir. Nic Roeg, 1976.

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