Showtime’s The Man Who Fell to Earth Updates a Sci-Fi Classic with Stellar Results

TV Reviews The Man Who Fell to Earth
Showtime’s The Man Who Fell to Earth Updates a Sci-Fi Classic with Stellar Results

In the new Showtime series The Man Who Fell To Earth, K. Faraday’s story sounds like one told by so many immigrants—at least initially.

When Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor) first sneaks into the United States, he can’t speak English, and he’s so unfamiliar with American customs that he’s immediately arrested. But a tireless work ethic and incredible intelligence lead to success. Faraday eventually becomes a famous tech guru and one of the wealthiest men on the planet. He’s even referred to as a “tech god Willy Wonka.”

While this rags-to-riches tale sounds like a story from Horatio Alger, it’s much more unique than that. Faraday is a different kind of illegal alien: one from space. His planet and species are dying, and he knows what’s happening back home will happen to Earth if he doesn’t act. Faraday’s mission is to save the Earth, and if he’s lucky, maybe his own family—if only he could get some help from the locals.

Fascinating, humorous, and at times inspiring, The Man Who Fell to Earth is based on the Walter Tevis novel of the same name and the 1976 film. It follows a new alien character, and once again proves Chiwetel Ejiofor has acting chops that match his magnificent name.

The pilot episode opens with a glimpse into Faraday’s future. He’s standing on a stage, talking at an event that looks like a Ted Talk mixed with an Apple press conference. Faraday has invented a revolutionary, yet tiny, box that will change the world. Classy, suave, and with a self-deprecating sense of humor, his charisma has the audience hanging on his every word. This is a far cry from the man who first arrived on Earth.

The Faraday of the present, though, is struggling to get what he needs because he’s literally learning what it’s like to be a human being. He’s landed in Los Alamos, New Mexico and his body is going through sensory overload. Every sound, sight and smell is overwhelming. Faraday also has few clues on how to communicate. He picks up verbiage by repeating what he hears.

So when a police officer processing him after his arrest sarcastically says, “Sometimes here on Earth, when you tell folks you want something in a really loud voice and say ‘fuck’ a lot, it works.” This leads to Faraday shouting, “Fuck! Water!” much to the surprise of the officer, K. Faraday (Martha Plimpton), who he names himself after. It’s a jarring and funny moment, and one of many in the first four episodes (of the ten episode season) made available for review that exemplifies Chiwetel Ejiofor’s incredible range.

At first sight, Faraday appears to be a walking contradiction. His speech is incredibly awkward, almost hysterically so, but it evolves over time. Faraday’s rudimentary understanding of relationships is blunt yet strangely insightful (“You store your aged and forget about them.”) He’s also clearly intelligent, at one point taking tossed-aside electronics and turning them into a tracking device. Even more intriguing is Faraday’s appreciation for music. Whether it’s “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites or “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations, when he hears music his face is full of surprise and delight. Everything is new to him, so he takes no experience for granted. In many ways, Faraday feels more human than most humans, making Ejiofor’s performance both convincing and brilliant.

While watching The Man Who Fell To Earth I was reminded of two seemingly disparate, yet similar characters: E.T and the alien played by Jeff Bridges in the 1984 film, Starman. Faraday shares E.T. ’s sensitivity and Starman’s curiosity, but is also his own unique character who, like his predecessors, will make viewers ponder the nature of humanity.

Speaking of, eventually Faraday finds a reluctant human partner. Like most people he meets, Justin Falls (Naomie Harris) thinks Faraday is delusional and possibly on the spectrum. The single mother doesn’t want to have anything to do with him because she has her own problems. Falls will take any work she can get, even if it means cleaning up hazardous waste. She’s desperate for money because she has to buy the expensive medicine for her ailing father, Josiah (Clarke Peters), a brilliant scientist from the Bahamas who used to work for the U.S. government. But after his visa expired, he’s also now an illegal alien—one who isn’t covered by health insurance.

It’s this sense of desperation that forces Falls to ultimately agree to help Faraday, (who manages to surprisingly produce a hefty chunk of cash) despite her better judgment. However, their meeting is not coincidental. Falls is the one person on Earth Faraday sought out. At one time a successful scientist and engineer in her own right, Falls’ heartbreaking fate has in many ways left her as broken emotionally as her father is physically.

Falls and Faraday are an unlikely yet engaging pair; Harris and Ejiofor have excellent chemistry and perfectly compliment each other. Because Faraday sees the world from a unique perspective, Falls rethinks everything she thought she knew and begins to find her purpose. Meanwhile she helps him understand what makes humanity special.

Of course, life would be a lot simpler for Falls and Faraday if all they had to do was figure out how to work together to save humanity but nothing ever comes easily for this duo. Helping them along, sort of, is Faraday’s former teacher, Thomas Jerome Newton (Bill Nighy), a character from the 1976 film originally played by David Bowie. Newton came to Earth 40 years ago but is a tangled mess because he’s evolved into a mix of alien and human. He both appreciates and is troubled by humans, so his approach to the species is often conflicted.

It wouldn’t be a TV series about aliens without some government interlopers. Enter Drew Finch (Kate Mulgrew) and Spencer Clay (Jimmi Simpson), with the latter being so despicable audiences will quickly come to hate him. The pair make worthy adversaries. But when the oddly named Hatch Flood (Rob Delaney) arrives in Episode 3, the series really hits its stride and viewers will be hooked.

This series manages to pull off something surprisingly hard to do, perfectly mixing science fiction with humor, heart, and a level of environmentalism that’s thought-provoking yet not overbearing. Loaded with fantastic performances and a fascinating plot, The Man Who Fell To Earth not only entertains but may even give you a greater appreciation for what it means to be human.

The Man Who Fell To Earth premieres Sunday, April 24th on Showtime.

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model. When he’s not helping aliens save humanity, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

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