Why this, and why now? These are questions that viewers of the new Showtime series The Man Who Fell to Earth may find themselves asking in the expansive existential sense, wondering what combination of choices have taken them down the path that leads to the zillionth and perhaps most inessential entry in the recent streaming-motivated miniseries boom. But this is also worth asking in literal terms: even in our current showbiz paradigm of ravenous, unchecked IP-gobbling, what could’ve compelled TV executives to license a semi-obscure 70s sci-fi gem with dense philosophical underpinnings, and renovate it so thoroughly that it might as well be its own thing? Does Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film have such a strong cultural market share that the brand recognition of its title can’t be passed up? And more to the point, why take one of the greatest movies ever made and elongate it to ten hours, trade its borderline experimental cinematography for blandly functional digital shooting, and force a perfectly serviceable star like Chiwetel Ejiofor to stand comparison with the inspired inscrutability of David Bowie playing the alien he’d always been?
The show gives us the real answer to all this quickly enough, introducing Faraday (Ejiofor) midway through one of the buzz-generating product launches that give today’s CEOs a platform for Steve Jobs cosplay. In his hand, he holds a small box containing something that he announces will change the world, though he’s got more to back up his claim than most self-fashioned gadget gurus of Silicon Valley. Like Bowie’s Thomas Newton before him, Faraday hails from the planet Althea (an Avatar-type land rendered in budget CGI), and he also brought the key to quantum fusion with him when he fled the drought killing his people on a mission for life-sustaining water. Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet’s miniseries positions itself as a sequel to Roeg’s film, alluding to the memory of Bowie and checking back in with aged, recast versions of the extant characters. But they’ve still recycled the original premise, with the most topical aspect now moved to the fore. This extraterrestrial’s relevance is renewed by turning him into a start-up douche, his dreamy parable of corrupted purity converted into a more earthbound address of big tech.
Writing partners Kurtzman and Lumet specialize in draining the nuance from beloved genre properties, whether that’s their blockbuster-fied take on The Mummy from the Dark Universe that died in development utero, or their Hannibal Lecter streamer Clarice canceled after one season. They’ve nonetheless failed upward into the intellectual heavyweight class, Roeg’s techniques as well as Walter Tevis’ source novel both too heady for their digestion. The miniseries opts instead to shift its commentaries into a comfortable middlebrow register, spending much of the first four episodes supplied to critics on entry-level spaceman thought exercises. Following the Ted Talk-ish opening, the timeline flashes back to Faraday’s crash-landing as a tabula rasa, albeit with a frustrating lack of consistency to what he does and does not comprehend. He talks like someone doing a bad impression of mental disability whenever he’s not talking like an automaton (one gets the sense a thespian of Ejiofor’s caliber wasn’t taking notes from journeymen TV directors); his acumen in STEM fields seems limitless, yet he’s flummoxed by X-rays and doesn’t know not to deep throat a garden hose.
While this defamiliarized perspective allows the homo sapiens that cross his path to see our emotional human peculiarities in a sober light, Faraday’s accumulated allies – bereaved physicist Justin (Naomie Harris), alcoholic capital investor Hatch (Rob Delaney) – more often distract from the point. The miniseries form’s reliance on time-filling subplots leaves this band’s urgent quest particularly unfocused, squabbles between siblings over decades-old patent disputes being small potatoes next to the heat-death of the universe. Those are the stakes, Faraday having arrived just in time to salvage our home from climate crisis along with his own, and the writing feints at an interesting direction only when it extrapolates the global implications of its premise. Hatch rattles off the calamities that would be set in motion by Faraday’s infinite-energy doohickey, and concludes that our environment’s last hope for survival could very well kill us by toppling capitalism. There’s your TV show.
At least in the first half, there’s little interest in following through on this thrilling hypothetical, the ‘disruption’ taking place of a more conventional sort. As much as Kurtzman and Lumet want us to see the business side of science as evil, with its underhanded dealings and freebasing of cocaine, there’s an apparent belief in the game-changer innovation they’re selling. What Faraday’s framing as the next big genius fails to account for is that these cults of personality are hollow, built around nimrod weirdoes like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk predominantly skilled at selling the myth of their own brilliance. Putting Faraday in line with that credulously accepted image sullies Bowie’s interpretation of the character as a fallen angel in existential decline, his inventions more symbol than commodity. This misbegotten addendum loses the big picture for focus on the details of commerce; it’s a crass perversion of something beautiful, not a tragedy about one.