‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ Continues a Classic Sci-Fi Story With Renewed Urgency

Showtime’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” defies a particular trend. Instead of remaking or updating a classic, it continues it while feeling wholly new. It keeps the original name of the novel by Walter Tevis, but readers may recognize it more from the 1976 Nicolas Roeg movie that marked David Bowie’s debut as a film lead. Bowie’s performance as an alien visiting Earth in order to build a fortune to save his drought-stricken planet was the Roeg film’s highlight. It’s a tough act to follow for Chiwetel Ejiofor, a formidable actor without a doubt, who is more than up to the challenge. Ejiofor also succeeds in bringing the real allure to a story both simple and archaic. He’s the new extraterrestrial infiltrating our capitalist institutions to rescue his home.

As in the original story, this ten-episode limited series opens with an alien named Faraday (Ejiofor) crashing into the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. He assumes human form and stumbles naked into town, freaking out the locals who call the police. At the police station he insists on making contact with Justin Falls (Naomie Harris). Justin is a scientist who used to work at MIT but now takes care of an ailing father. She spends her time getting him painkillers while also taking care of her young daughter, Molly (Annelle Olaleye). The main reason Faraday seeks her help is because Justin once developed an idea for a new energy source that could end climate catastrophe on Earth, but was shut down when the plan seemed to fail. Not only does Faraday seek him for his planet, he needs humans to understand that Justin’s ideas could also help stop Earth from becoming a barren wasteland as well. The original visitor from four decades ago, Thomas Newton (now played by Bill Nighy), is still around and will also need Faraday’s help, to steal back the corporation he started.

The creative team behind “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is a pair specializing in combining introspective narrative with popcorn entertainment. Alex Kurtzman has written lots of box office spectacles like “The Mummy” and J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek.” Jenny Lumet has written for shows like “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Clarice,” but also penned “Rachel Getting Married.” Their expansion of this material is much more fast-paced than the Roeg movie and a previous limited series adaptation that aired in 1987 on ABC. But it’s no less alluring, strange and intelligent. There are slicker special effects, like CGI sequences involving giant tornados or Faraday having visions of massive, crumbling structures on his home planet. Early in the series, we can see him clearly merge into a human body, hiding his scales and spiky alien extensions. In the Roeg film, Bowie simply appears in the wilderness with an alien tone. 

Another key difference is how Ejiofor plays the visiting alien. Instead of being enigmatic, he’s written as a more upfront extraterrestrial struggling at first to adjust to being human. The cops find him naked sucking water out of a hose down his throat. He loudly imitates what he hears others say and shouts the name or places he’s supposed to find. He also screams “fuck!” out loud in public, not knowing that’s not exactly proper human manners. Only when Thomas Newton confronts him about what his real mission is does Faraday speak in his natural, “alien” voice. Fans of the original story will learn that now only a few thousand of Faraday and Newton’s species are left, meaning Newton’s family, whom he left behind in the ‘70s, are mostly likely dead. What follows is a clever take on the whole idea of a “remake.” By tasking Faraday with taking back his company, World Enterprises, Newton is essentially passing along his role to someone new. Now it is Faraday who we see ascend to the heights of economic prosperity, making public appearances and dressed in elegant suits. 

Naomie Harries is a great pairing for Ejiofor, even if the first two episodes give her too many of the cliché moments where she’s screams and drives away in terror when it becomes clear what Faraday is. But as the story progresses she gains momentum as a strong supporting role with her own, humanly moving backstory. Jimmi Simpson is also given a recognizable but effective role as CIA agent Spencer Clay, who has become an outcast but sees the potential of restoring his status by targeting Faraday .Like much classic sci-fi, all of it eventually links to a universal theme or message. In other shows and films, the aliens are here to conquer or make contact. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” has endured as a cult classic because beneath the theme of an alien visitor adjusting to Earth, it’s about wondering if we need an intelligent being from beyond our planet to save us. Faraday and Justin bond over an extraordinary occurrence, but what their characters come to symbolize is the need to stop the planet’s degradation. Saving the planet is an endless plot point in many thrillers and dramas but climate change, war and inequality are not science fiction.

The Man Who Fell to Earth” premieres April 24 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.