One might assume Showtime’s The Man Who Fell To Earth to be a series remake of the cult classic sci-fi flick of the same name from 1976, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring the perfectly cast David Bowie as an alien searching for a water source for his sun-scorched planet.
That basic description of the original holds true in the new series starring Chiwitel Ejiofor. Ejiofor is perfect as the fast-learning alien K. Faraday who has come to Earth to try to find a way to save his home planet of Anthea—the same planet Bowie was looking to salvage over 45 years ago. And then it hits you: this version of The Man Who Fell To Earth isn’t so much an iteration, but a profoundly rendered continuation of the story.
The 1976 film ends with Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) gaining significant wealth from the advanced technology he brings from his world to ours, turning into a bit of a Howard Hughes character. Eventually he is experimented on by the US government, becomes addicted to alcohol, and fails to return to his planet. But before becoming a complete recluse, Newton records a series of messages to send to his home planet, hoping that someone else will be able finish what he started.
This is where the Showtime series comes into play. K. Faraday has received Newton’s message and steps forward as his successor. Like Newton (who is played by Bill Nighy in flashbacks) Faraday falls to earth, brings new technology with him, attempts to assimilate (often hilariously) among humans, and begins his mission to save his planet.
The show is full of Easter eggs for Bowie lovers—those that pay tribute to the film that preceded it, and to Bowie’s Starman himself. The Showtime Presents title card is scripted in a font that will likely remind fans of his Diamond Dogs album. Each episode bears the name of a David Bowie song (Hallo Spaceboy is the pilot title). There’s even a sign for a “Stardust Hotel” that appears in episode three. If you worship at the altar of the Thin White Duke, then all of these choices are likely to make you smile.
What really matters, though, is how unique and well-made the series is. All of the care taken to pay homage to Bowie and his film would be nothing more than sweet touches without something substantial to hang them on. Fortunately, the series is not just a compilation of wonderful eccentricities, but a fully-fledged project that showcases some real next-level thinking in terms of script and direction.
One can’t begin to sing the show’s praises without going full bel canto on the performance of Chiwitel Ejiofor. Long one of our most wonderful actors, the role of K. Faraday is without question his most definitive since 12 Years A Slave—and my how he makes the most of it. Arriving in the New Mexico desert, Chiwitel’s Faraday is driven to find a disgraced scientist named Justin (a wonderful Naomie Harris) whose failure to create energy through fusion holds the key to his planet’s future.
While Faraday learns English quickly, the nuances of the language often escape him and his workman-like efforts to enunciate create a number of laugh out loud moments. Justin is often at a loss to explain her companion’s strange behavior, including his odd manner of speaking and his habit of drinking out of water pitchers instead of cups. Faraday’s water consumption can be ravenous, as shown when he is discovered by local police with an open spigoted garden hose inserted halfway down his gullet.
All of this unexpected humor does not detract from the seriousness of what is at stake. There are only a few thousand of Faraday’s kind left alive on Anthea, and earth itself is on a similar trajectory should it not change its ways. Faraday warns that earth has already hit its tipping point, and in just eight years (2030) the planet will enter into the extinction event stage.
Faraday is less interested in earth’s survival than that of his planet (he seems to view our planet as a lost cause), but Justin, in exchange for helping Faraday, makes a deal with the alien for him to leave behind the energy prototype so that earth will get the “same chance” to fix itself as Anthea. Faraday agrees, and then they are off to London to gain access to Newton’s mysterious “tenth patent,” a confounding piece of tech that, when combined with Justin’s dismissed theory, could result in the salvation of both planets.
Unlike the Roeg/Bowie film, Showtime’s series has a lot of money for VFX, and it makes the most of them. A tornado in the desert is filmed with striking immediacy, and when Faraday crashes a tech conference to demo his breathtaking energy-creating prototype, the jaws that hit the floor aren’t just those in attendance, but ours as well.
With six episodes to go, it’s unclear where this journey will take us. Will Faraday succeed where Newton did not? Will he fall prey to the riches and vices that Newton did on earth? Or will he be discovered by the government, taken into custody, and become the subject of experimentation just like his predecessor?
I suppose that’s going to be the fun of watching. Because this is a sequel and not a remake, there’s no roadmap to the end of this series. But with each episode you can feel the weight of the outcome growing incrementally, perhaps even exponentially. This is a show about science, how it relates to the environment, and the strange ability us earthlings have to ignore consequences, even as they approach to take our lives.
The Man Who Fell To Earth may be science fiction, but the most significant part of it doesn’t feel like fiction at all. It feels like the world we’re living in right now. In that sense, The Man Who Fell To Earth isn’t just a show, it’s a warning.
If David Bowie were still with us, I’d like to believe he’d tell Chiwetel and company that they “really made the grade.” Perhaps he is out there somewhere, sitting in a tin can, far above the world, singing this show’s praises.
What a lovely thought that is.
The Man Who Fell To Earth releases new episodes on Sundays exclusively on Showtime.