When President Grover Cleveland pushed a button to light the 100,000 incandescent lamps at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the luminous glow, which left attendees awestruck in the face of modernity, finally shined the world from the proverbial dark ages toward the future. In Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman’s Showtime limited series The Man Who Fell to Earth, a slew of tech royalty look out windows at a London skyline dazzlingly lit by quantum fusion power, capturing a similar sense of promise and wonder. This show understands the tricky balance between mystery and intrigue, madness and lucidity, progress and heartbreak. It doesn’t always set its own world ablaze in the same way, but it manages to offer a hearty spark.
Based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 science fiction novel of the same name, the show’s titular character, Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor), crashes from the heavens, naked, in search of water. Police pick him up, and he requests the presence of Justin Falls (Naomie Harris), a disgraced MIT graduate in quantum physics now shoveling manure in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Faraday can barely speak. He learns by listening, then regurgitating what he hears in a spatter of phrases and obscenities that worries everyone around him. It’s not the first time he’ll face the police. And if there’s one major failing of the series, it’s the color-blind scenarios of Black characters interacting with cops (particularly when Faraday is acting unhinged) but surviving mostly unscathed and ignored, which requires a real suspension of disbelief.
Faraday is on a mission ordered by Thomas Newton (Bill Nighy), a once-great inventor, presently gone and barely remembered except by his heirs. Before Spencer Clay (Jimmi Simpson), a needling CIA agent, can stop him, Faraday must find Justin, the world’s expert in quantum fusion technology, so they might build a machine that’ll save his planet and Earth from the ravages of climate change . But departing with Faraday on a globetrotting adventure isn’t easy for Justin. For one, she doesn’t know him except as a troubled stranger without personal boundaries; Faraday often says exactly what’s on his mind, no matter how casually cruel or weird he sounds. She also has a young daughter, Molly (Annelle Olaleye), and an arthritic father in constant need of care and medicine, Josiah (a delightful Clarke Peters).
The Man Who Fell to Earth initially subsists on Faraday’s quirkiness. Ejiofor delivers a torrent of accents in a William Shatner cadence. His spasms and kinetic physical energy offer a full range of emotions that at once dole out laughs and heartache — if given the chance, he would’ve made a great Doctor in Doctor Who. Simply put, this show isn’t afraid to be silly: In one scene Faraday, searching for water, sticks a few feet of garden hose down his throat. In another he vomits a mountain of gold rings to pawn.
Similar to the 1976 film starring David Bowie (who was always like an alien in his own right), Lumet and Kurtzman lean toward Tevis’ meditations on apocalypses and human error. Enter Harris’ Justin, a brilliant woman hiding her genius because of a mistake she committed long ago. The emotive Harris usually provides major wattage, and she doesn’t disappoint here, as she crumbles and rebuilds to craft a character whose strength resides not in her anger but her admittedly shaky moral center. Together, she and Ejiofor add immeasurable potency to a series that sometimes slows to a crawl as it dissects the various apocalyptic scenarios around us.
The adaptation’s themes can often leave a bad taste in your mouth too. At one point, it resorts to ableism, pitching one character’s disability as a burden for their family, leading to a moment reminiscent of The Green Mile. The writers, admirably, want to make The Man Who Fell to Earth a commentary on refugees. The series, in fact, begins in the future, with a successful Faraday as a Steve Jobs-style tech master talking to an auditorium filled with fans. He proclaims himself an immigrant who will tell his story. But what are the key elements to an immigrant’s story? Certainly, there’s the fish-out-of-water element of being a traveler in a strange land with odd customs and a difficult language barrier. But the series fails to address the political element of it in a series featuring several strata of American law enforcement. Admittedly, only four of the show’s 10 episodes were screened for review, but so far, the immigrant component is reedy at best.
For all the thematic holes, the series does offer visual wonderment. Wide vistas of desert landscapes, emphasizing the repetition of desolation, imbues the rough terrain with the spirit of the unexplainable. The cinematic lighting in particular, as it cuts sharp beams through austere compositions, emphasizes the series’ tinge of thriller, as does the thrumming score. Tranquil waters do flow through some episodes, such as Ejiofor and Peters dueting on “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (it’s as adorable as it sounds) as well as Faraday and Falls supporting the other, even when everyone doubts them.
An unmistakable urgency pushes The Man Who Fell to Earth — not just in Faraday’s mission and his belief in the ends justifying the means, but the environmental criticism guiding his journey and ours. Our planet is dying. And the people in power care very little about that fact. Sooner than we think, the damage will be irreversible. Faraday comes from a world where the only way to turn back the hands of time requires him to literally travel through space and time. Why are we letting petty rivalries and grievances destroy our collective future? Most likely because we’re human. It’s our flaw and our strength. We can reach for the future when the light shines clearest, and then smash the switch when the light reveals an uncomfortable truth.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is filled with those truths but doesn’t necessarily smash the switch or even reinvent it. A narrative universe exists where the show could be weirder, more boundary-pushing. Instead, the series needs more fortifying before its thematic investments yield any firm results, but good performances melded with an eccentric tone rife for tantalizing storytelling opportunities makes it worth exploring.