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No need to be sheepish. We’re among friends here. But raise your hand if the first few times you heard Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” you were convinced that the song, with its chorus beginning “I’m an alien/ I’m a legal alien,” was actually meant to be taken literally.
Sure, the song (apparently written about writer Quentin Crisp) is just about the alienating sense of being an outsider, of having people judge you for your accent or aspiring to civility in an uncivilized land. But it’s much more fun if it’s also about a spaceman.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Airdate: 10 p.m. Sunday, April 24 (Showtime)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris, Jimmi Simpson, Rob Delaney, Sonya Cassidy, Joana Ribeiro, Annelle Olaleye, Kate Mulgrew, Clarke Peters and Bill Nighy
Creators: Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet
It’s not adroit, or sensitive, to make a connection between aliens who come from outer space and people who cross borders from Mexico or Canada. It’s basically the premise of Alien Nation, V, two different television versions of Roswell and more sci-fi movies than I can count. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining to see an allegory handled well, and Showtime’s The Man Who Fell to Earth uses the allegory as a solid point of entry before aiming for a greater exploration of what it means to be human and, more than that, to be the steward of an entire planet.
If anything, Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman’s extension of the Walter Tevis novel and cult classic Nicolas Roeg film has too many allegorical things on its mind and not enough clarity on how to relay its various points about the desperate need for empathy, especially for the strangers in our midst. In just four episodes sent to critics, The Man Who Fell to Earth is at least two or three somewhat different shows, and there’s a tonal whiplash that can be perplexing. But thus far a delightful performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor holds the series together in ways that remain entertaining and full of potential.
After an in medias res opening featuring Ejiofor’s character being celebrated as some kind of Bill Gates/Steve Jobs tech genius, we see him arrive, naked, deep in the New Mexico desert. He doesn’t speak English or understand human behavior. And when he basically swallows a hose attempting to consume an obscene amount of water, he’s arrested and interrogated by a friendly police officer named “K. Faraday” (Martha Plimpton in a small, but crucial cameo). He quickly picks up bits of language and decides to take Faraday’s name, which lets me stop discussing his character in such weirdly oblique terms.
Faraday is determined to make contact with Justin Falls (Naomie Harris), a former scientist whose failed attempts at cold fusion caused her to mostly drop off the grid. Justin is struggling to support her ailing father Josiah (Clarke Peters) — another former scientist who came over from the Bahamas as an “alien of extraordinary abilities” — and daughter (Annelle Olaleye).
But maybe Justin’s attempts at cold fusion didn’t exactly fail. Maybe she’s the only person who can help Faraday construct an energy device designed by Thomas Jerome Newton (Bill Nighy) — a device with the potential to save Faraday’s dying planet and maybe our dying planet as well. Yes, Newton is the character played by David Bowie in the movie and all you need to know is that he came to Earth, used patents from his alien technology to get wealthy and disappeared. Faraday needs Justin, but Justin wants no part of this stranger who seems to cause trouble wherever he goes.
Kurtzman, who directed the first four episodes, isn’t Nicolas Roeg, and makes no effort to replicate the haunting, beautiful and often surreal visuals from the movie. That doesn’t mean that The Man Who Fell to Earth isn’t eye-popping and ear-popping, with extreme camera angles and intrusive sound design capturing Faraday’s perspective on our world. It isn’t exactly surrealistic, but there are comparable elements of alienation and disorientation to how Faraday handles unfamiliar stimuli, positive and negative, on our apparently assaultive planet. The pilot in particular is probably the most assertive and distinctive thing that Kurtzman has ever directed, driven by well-utilized special effects, expressive use of widescreen Western visas and a revelatory Ejiofor.
You might need to go all the way back to Kinky Boots for the last time Ejiofor gave a performance that relied this heavily on physicality, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this funny before. Faraday’s increasing comfort with language gives Ejiofor opportunities for impersonations and absurdist delivery choices — Plimpton’s character’s sarcastic advice that “when you tell folks you want something in a really loud voice and say ‘fuck’ a lot, it works,” opens the door for some glorious profanity — but most of his best moments are silent and reactive, as he realizes the attributes and failings of his human flesh suit. It’s a performance that’s deliriously weird and yet entirely intentional at every turn. The immigration undertones add poignancy — and notes of nostalgia for Ejiofor’s role in Dirty Pretty Things — as does the acknowledgement that Faraday’s struggles with social cues and sensory overload are most comprehensible to other people as traits of being on the autism spectrum.
Ejiofor is playing the Terminator as interpreted by Buster Keaton, calling attention to how Harris’ Justin is a lot like Sarah Connor with an advanced degree. The first two episodes rely too heavily on repeating Faraday’s intense desire to push forward on his mission and Justin’s confused reluctance. But her growing understanding of his needs and his growing understanding of the concept of empathy make for a dynamic that’s both prickly and sweet, compounded initially by the always welcome Peters and instantly likable Olaleye.
While you never doubt that Ejiofor’s performance is exactly as funny as he wants it to be, in the first two episodes he’s using that humor as a counterbalance to developing tension, not as something mirrored by the rest of the show.
That changes in the third episode with the introduction of the tightly wound Sonya Cassidy and a raucously disheveled Rob Delaney as bickering siblings still coping with the loss of their father and beginning to face the idea of a world beyond their comprehension. Would I compare the tone of those next two episodes to AMC’s dearly departed Lodge 49 were it not for Cassidy? Probably not. Because of Cassidy did I make that comparison, and enjoy the increasingly light and loopy episodes more as a result? Indubitably.
There’s a transition here from something rather in the vein of a ’70s thriller to a zippier, more Spielbergian adventure about estranged families and the friendly alien who uses his magic powers — among other things, Faraday can vomit up anything, which doesn’t sound like a gift, but occasionally is — to lead a spirited mission, while dark governmental forces lurk. Playing the smirking CIA agent who represents those dark governmental forces, Jimmi Simpson is essentially off in his own show.
Because of the shifts in tone and pacing, and the frequency with which Kurtzman and Lumet want to go from talking about immigration to global warming to a fuzzier cumulative idea of humanity, it still isn’t clear to me what The Man Who Fell to Earth is in the big picture. It isn’t immediately propulsive enough to feel like a limited series or instantly expansive enough to suggest there are five or six seasons of material here. With Ejiofor and the growing ensemble, at least there’s something to latch onto, if that whole “the fate of Earth and maybe the universe” thing isn’t quite as gripping as it should be.
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