‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ Review: Chiwetel Ejiofor Soars in a Strong Start to Showtime’s Pseudo-Sequel

“The Man Who Fell To Earth” has never made for light entertainment. Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel set a dire trajectory, and David Bowie’s 1976 film, among many changes, sticks with the sentiment. An alien arrives in America, hoping to save his species from a distant planet, and… things do not go as planned. The arc, after all, is right there in the title (no matter how you read it).

So viewers familiar with the original template may be on their heels a bit after the latest adaptation — a serialized drama from showrunners Alex Kurtzmann (“Fringe,” “Star Trek: Discovery”) and Jenny Lumet (“Rachel Getting Married,” “Clarice”)  — opens in media res. No, the flash-forward isn’t a surprise (please make them stop), but the hopeful promise made by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s outer space visitor speaking to an auditorium of avid fans as a “man” who’s not only well-established, but widely beloved… well, that’s a pivot. And the early hours of Showtime’s sequel series keep the surprises coming. Whether it’s Ejiofor’s fluid embrace of his spaceman’s outlandish human behavior or the episodes’ effective balance of silly, heartwarming character-building with a brisk pace and weighty gravitas, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” is… fun now?

Where once there stood a suited gentleman, now walks a naked drifter. The premiere jumps back to the start of our immigrant’s story, beginning with his awkward arrival on Earth. Stumbling through the New Mexico night, Ejiofor’s yet-unnamed extraterrestrial is almost immediately arrested for trespassing, having wandered into an angry white man’s backyard for a sip of water. OK, to be fair, maybe he takes more than a sip. Maybe when the cops show up, he’s got four feet of a watering hose down his throat. But hey, who among us couldn’t benefit from better hydration? Let that peculiarity slide.

But the next morning, as he’s interrogated by an officer played by Martha Plimpton, he’s overwhelmed by stimuli: From the near-silence of a pencil scratching on a police sketch pad to the intrusive blaring of a TV news show, Ejiofor hears it all. While disorienting — and episode director Kurtzman shoots the scene with extreme close-ups on each noisemaker, paired with exaggerated sound effects — it’s also helpful. He’s trying to learn to communicate, which the officer, named K. Faraday, learns when she asks him his name and he simply repeats hers.

Nevertheless, it sticks. “Faraday” uses his phone call to contact Justin Falls (Naomie Harris), who he claims is integral to his mission. At first, it’s hard to see how. Justin spends her days getting paid under the table for cleaning up toxic sludge from local construction sites. She then uses that meager earnings to pay a drug dealer for her father’s medication — prescription drugs otherwise unavailable to her. Then she goes home to take care of her adolescent daughter, before starting the cycle over the next day. But between shifts, we learn Justin used to be a scholar focused on fusion power, and Faraday needs her help building a machine using a similar fuel source.

Thankfully, Justin doesn’t just go off with a stranger she meets at a police station who guzzles water like a camel (and whose only response when told as much is, “I have four stomachs”). Their paths are pushed together more believably, as Kurtzman and Lumet use their strained early meetings to develop key traits for both leads. And what leads they are. It’s been far too long since Ejiofor has been able to bring this much joy to a role (perhaps since “Kinky Boots”), and his elastic expressions match a fluctuating timbre that always convey Faraday’s perspective, even when his actions read as inexplicable to those around him. (An early scene where he learns to “ask” for water is a treasure.)

That understanding of his character also helps Ejiofor bounce between absurd jokes and commanding sincerity, which helps him meet Harris’ pitch. While Faraday is laser-focused on his life-or-death mission, his slow absorption of humanity’s customs serve as distractions for him and injections of humor for us. Justin, meanwhile, has to reign him in, keep him out of trouble, and juggle both of their developing priorities. Harris tackles every scene with gusto; even when Justin is dragging Faraday along, the audience never feels that way under her deft touch.

Bill Nighy in “The Man Who Fell To Earth”

Aimee Spinks / Showtime

As excellent as these two Oscar nominees are, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” surrounds them with an exemplary supporting cast. Bill Nighy plays Thomas Newton, the main character from both the original book and movie, whose purpose here is contextualized at the start of Episode 2. Jimmi Simpson leans into his black hat persona as an outcast CIA agent who sees a way back in through chasing Faraday. Clarke Peters embodies Justin’s ailing father with his amiable charms, and Rob Delaney adds another punch of grounded humor to the proceedings as Hatch Flood (what a name), the black sheep of a prominent tech family who Faraday seeks out.

It remains far too soon to tell if “The Man Who Fell To Earth” can sustain its initial momentum. World-building is something Kurtzman has gotten pretty good at over the years, and there’s only so long the series can draw jokes from their fish out of water before he learns to walk and talk on land. Tevis’ book has always carried powerful metaphors, and the premiere often alludes to Faraday’s experience as an immigrant coming to America. How well they’re able to expand on that theme, as well as how much commentary they want to provide on national intolerance (be it systemic racism or more), remains to be seen. There’s enough meaningful drama so far to believe the show can sustain heavier moments, but there’s also a resistance to tackling issues head-on.

Still, this “Man Who Fell To Earth” has already established it’s not telling the same old story. With a cast this strong, it’s worth seeing where this mission goes next.

Grade: B

“The Man Who Fell To Earth” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Showtime will debut the series Sunday, April 24 at 10 p.m. ET. New episodes will be released weekly.

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