Showtime’s reboot/sequel of Nicolas Roeg’s exquisite “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is better appreciated if one divorces it from comparisons to the original. Who could possibly imitate David Bowie’s remarkable alien quality in that film? A singer and entertainer who always seemed slightly out of this world, Bowie played a humanoid alien who crashed to Earth in an effort to bring water back to his home planet, but the plot was secondary to Roeg’s craft and Bowie’s otherness. As talented as Chiwetel Ejiofor is as an actor—and some of the choices he makes here are fascinating—he would be the first to tell you that he’s not David Bowie. Nobody is. If anything, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” feels more of a piece with HBO’s “Westworld,” another reboot of a classic sci-fi property that took elements of the source material and worked them into a large enough world to support a weekly drama, getting further and further away from the source with each twist and turn. Anchored by strong work from Ejiofor, Naomie Harris, Jimmi Simpson, and Bill Nighy, Showtime’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is consistently interesting even if it struggles to transcend that level of praise in its first few episodes, in part due to hyperactive editing and direction from Alex Kurtzman that seems designed to pummel audiences into forgetting Bowie.
The set-up is similar to the original film and Walter Tevis‘ source material. An alien (Ejiofor) crashes into the earth in New Mexico, stumbling his way to civilization nearby. He mimics those he sees and hears, including a police officer named K. Faraday (Martha Plimpton), from whom our protagonist steals a name and sarcastic advice about how profanity can produce results. Faraday comes with orders to contact a single mother named Justin Falls (Harris), who has been caring for her ailing father Josiah (Clarke Peters), even as her funds to do so have been dwindling. She has no idea why Faraday needs her, but the alien believes that Justin is not only the key to saving his planet but Earth in the process. How does he know this? Thomas Jerome Newton.
Fans of the original are probably pausing here. Yes, a character with the same name as Bowie’s plays a major role in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” turning it into as much of a sequel as a reboot/remake. The great Bill Nighy plays Newton, who brought amazing technology to Earth years ago, including a famous “tenth patent” that no one has been able to decode, including his offspring Hatch (a very fun Rob Delaney) and Edie (Sonya Cassidy). They will play a role too in Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet’s interweaving narratives, ones that also bring in a mysterious man in black named Spencer Clay (Jimmi Simpson), set up as the kind of dangerous variable who could derail all of Faraday and Justin’s plans, and basically doom the entire planet.
Kurtzman’s background being more in sci-fi action than the moody surrealism of the Roeg original makes for the biggest difference between the experiences. He directs the first few episodes with a hyperactive, stylized approach that feels more like his time working with Michael Bay on the “Transformers” films than the narrative here really needed. The camera is constantly zooming around Faraday and Falls in early episodes, and when the former starts to riff on his home planet, it’s hard not to hear echoes of similar jargon about Autobots and Decepticons in the dialogue. None of it has enough weight in the early episodes, and the assaultive style can feel more like a distraction than an enhancement.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is more effective when one can hear the more character-driven work of Lumet (who wrote the wonderful “Rachel Getting Married”) pushing its way through the clichés, and when Kurtzman trusts his performers to sell the immediacy of the story without so many bells and whistles. Ejiofor, Harris, and Simpson are very capable of doing that. They’re the kind of performers that carry a complex story over any narrative speedbumps simply because viewers want to see what they’re going to do next. Ejiofor turns Faraday into a wide-eyed, wide-mouthed creature, using his remarkably expressive face in ways he’s never had to do before. It’s a fascinating, fearless performance that’s well-balanced by a totally committed Harris on one end and a mysteriously terrifying Simpson on the other.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” especially in an era of Very Serious Drama, is that it’s often very fun. Ejiofor gets to show a comic timing that Hollywood has rarely allowed him to deploy, Simpson has a magnetic charm, and Nighy is, well, Bill Nighy, one of the few living actors who could believably play a character with the same name as one portrayed by David Bowie. The show is at its best when it’s allowing its massive personalities to bounce off each other. That’s another reason the hyperactive direction is a drawback—the actors have enough style to spare. Just trust them.
What will “The Man Who Fell to Earth” be in seasons two, three, or four? It very much feels like a show with a small shelf life—and it’s another one of those programs that opens with a flash-forward of a suave, smooth-talking Faraday, leading viewers to wonder what it will take to get there. Will we arrive by the end of season one? How long can Ejiofor play the confused alien with four stomachs before he and the writers run out of fish out of water tales to tell? It feels like the show will start to dig into some of its broader themes about race and the environment after the four episodes sent to press—the book undeniably served as commentary about privilege and intolerance in ways that this version mostly avoids during the set-up—and that could make for some rewarding chapters. But while this version of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” escapes the shadow of the original thanks to its incredible cast, the question remains how long it can keep going before it stumbles. [B]