Showtime’s ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ sequel won’t blow your mind, but it’s solid sci-fi
Like the Walter Tevis novel on which it’s based, Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in which an alien, played by David Bowie, travels to this planet to save his dying people, ends in failure. A sequel to that story, premiering Sunday on Showtime, seems determined to bring that story to a happier ending and to suggest, additionally, that all hope is not lost for our own choking orb. Oh, the uses of fiction.
Unlike the film, with its elastic time and changes of tone, the new series is a much more conventional work, a well-made mainstream science-fiction adventure, with a clear line between the good guys and the bad guys, each with a saucerful of secrets, and a character or two liable to fall either way as things progress. That’s not a bad approach; getting arty might just seem imitative, and the noncanonical status of this new chapter allows it not to be too precious about what came before. If it lacks its predecessors’ satirical edge as regards American consumerism and self-sedation, it has other things to say about the way we are, and where we are going. (We are, after all, nearly 60 years on from the novel and 50 from the film.)
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the new visitor, from the planet Anthea, whom we see first as an erudite, well-spoken, well-dressed famous man of mystery, addressing an adoring crowd, contrasted with scenes of his meteoric arrival on Earth. Described by some as “a tyrant, a king, a tech god Willy Wonka up to his gobstopper in secrets,” and by himself as “an immigrant, a refugee,” he is about to tell them the story we are about to watch.
Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 science-fiction film ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ doesn’t adhere to sci-fi conventions
Full of strange imagery and even stranger ideas about space aliens, the origins of technology, corporate conspiracy and government interference Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” has long been a cult curiosity.
And so we skip back to meet the spaceman, in his fresh Earthman suit. Unlike his screen predecessor, Thomas Newton, who comes packaged as a cultured Englishman, he begins as raw clay, a poor communicator, a bumbler; like Newton he lands in New Mexico, where he adopts the name K. Faraday off the name tag of a police officer (Martha Plimpton, keeping it real as always). Faraday (so we shall call him — we don’t know what he calls himself) is a man who fell to Earth with a mission, a word he uses explicitly and repeatedly, and which barely begins to describe the impolitic single-mindedness with which he proceeds.
First in his mental agenda book is to find Justin Falls (Naomie Harris), whom we meet in a hazmat suit cleaning up some unspecified toxicity; soon enough we learn that she is a scientist in retreat, taking care of an adorable daughter (Annelle Olaleye) and an ailing father (Clarke Peters), who, coming from the Bahamas, underscores the series’ hardly hidden immigration theme. Like a heroine in a Hitchcock film, Justin will not believe Faraday, who drags her along for the ride, until she does.
“I am talking to someone from another planet,” she finally says.
“So am I,” he replies.
Jimmi Simpson plays Spencer Clay, the designated villain, a CIA operative who is brought in, in a hush-hush way, to investigate when strange activity pings down New Mexico Way. (Kate Mulgrew is his boss.) As if to underscore a point with the world’s biggest Magic Marker, Clay had previously been engaged in ridding the country of another sort of alien: “On my watch 1,502 rapists, criminals and parasites were deported out of this country, because I care. ... I screwed up with that Ukrainian family … but I’m fine with the legalities and the ethics of that, because they’re not here.” He’s a jerk to a waitress and crushes a butterfly for no reason at all, except to demonstrate to the viewer that he is just. Very. Bad.
A few small details seem picked up from the novel, almost as a nod to its readers, but links to Bowie and the film are foremost. The episode titles are those of Bowie songs; the font from the original British film poster is used for the first episode title; when Faraday floats on his back in a pool looking skyward, he observes, “The stars look very different from here,” just slightly altered from a line from Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
That Bowie’s character is played here, some years down the pike, by Bill Nighy is an inspired bit of casting; Newton, whom Roeg left drunk and disordered, makes only a brief appearance in the opening episodes, farther down the road to dissolution. “I know exactly what you’re thinking; this is not the Anthean I remember. Well, soon enough you won’t be the Anthean you remember either.”
Full of ideas and emotions, the ever-expanding ‘Star Trek’ canon is still finding new ways to go where no TV show has gone before, 55 years on.
Series creators Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet come from the “Star Trek” franchise. Like “Star Trek,” it balances solemnity and deep thoughts (“I am where I am supposed to be. You are where you are supposed to be”) with a cheeky streak. Asked if he’s hungry, Faraday replies, “I had an amino acid pack before impact,” and picking up an egg, he asks, “Whose design is this?” At one point a letter in the title “London,” spread across a shot of the Thames, moves aside to let a boat pass through.
It echoes those series’ aspirational scenarios as well, where humanity does have a future, when nothing human will be alien to us, and nothing alien either. But this Earth is far from paradise. “Are you afraid that there will not be enough resources left on this planet to see your child to maturity?” Faraday asks a pregnant woman (he can smell her pregnancy and her fear), with his typical lack of tact and sense of personal space. (He is a personal space invader.) “Because there likely will not be, and your child might die before it realizes its purpose.” Settle down, dude.
Only four episodes out of 10 have been made available for review, and I would suspect that some character transformations are in the offing, that even the bad, through some cosmic influence, may turn better. (Notably choosing sides are Rob Delaney and Sonya Cassidy as a brother and sister on the outs, who have inherited the patents that earlier made Newton a name and a target.) Given six hours of exposition left to go, one would assume some reversals and revelations before we get back to Faraday’s opening speech. (Just geographically, the show covers a good bit of ground in the first four hours.) It may turn out that being a tech god tyrant king is not all it’s cracked up to be. Though tech is of course at the heart of “Star Trek” — tech with heart, the way out of every tight corner.
I will have to find out with you. Meanwhile, it’s a solidly made, issue-oriented sci-fi road trip, nothing to blow your mind, perhaps, but not at all a waste of time.
‘The Man Who Fell to Earth‘
When: Sunday, 10 p.m.
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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