The Man Who Fell To Earth Review: A Timely And Fresh Adaptation Of A Sci-Fi Classic [SXSW]

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" does the impossible, and stands its ground as a worthy adaptation of the classic novel after David Bowie and Nicolas Roeg already made the best possible adaptation. There are enough additions and changes here to feel fresh — and a change in tone that may turn some purists away but ultimately makes for a compelling and highly entertaining watch.

Based on Walter Tevis' 1963 novel, "The Man Who Fell to Earth" follows an alien that arrives in America to save his species from the death of his distant planet, only to encounter more difficulties than he first expected.

A fish out of water tale

The first thing you should know about the new adaptation of "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is that showrunners Alex Kurtzman ("Fringe") and Jenny Lumet ("Clarice") drastically change the tone of the story, and make one very interesting change to the overall framing. For one thing, the premiere starts in medias res, with Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a tech mogul who openly speaks about being extraterrestrial to a stadium full of avid fans — a big departure from the bleak, alcoholic version of the source material. The second change is that the show is way funnier and more cheerful than you'd first expect, at least in the two episodes that premiered at SXSW.

Indeed, the show initially presents itself as more of a fish out of water story than anything else, taking its sweet time to explore all the comedic implications of an alien learning the ways of humans. Ejiofor is constantly desperate to fill his body with water because he says he has four stomachs (when we first meet his human form, he has four feet of a water hose just shover down his throat). He also keeps shouting obscenities at people because he heard someone say that shouting a command and saying the F word a lot can get you whatever you want. There are plenty of miscommunications and jokes about the character not understanding human customs, or the extreme priorities he has — expect a lot of uncomfortable moments where Ejiofor tells old people to just die already and stop wasting resources. This makes for a brisk and fun couple of episodes, even if the premise is something we've seen before.

This could grow tiresome very quickly, but Ejiofor manages to balance the silliness of Faraday's actions with genuine wide-eyed wonder about humanity, and also a sense of sadness for the imminent death of his species.

With a dash of melancholy

Despite all the jokes about Faraday drinking water and acting weird, "The Man Who Fell to Earth" still has a feeling of melancholy and inherent darkness to its story. It still carries the ideas of the source material with regards to the environment and the immigrant experience as it constantly reminds audiences of how close we are to annihilation.

The show does this through Naomi Harris' character Justin Falls, a former scholar of nuclear fusion who, after seemingly making a mistake in her calculations, now spends her days cleaning up toxic waste from construction sites to support her daughter and ailing father. The show also provides some updated commentary, like how Justin has to buy medication for her father from a drug dealer because a prescription is just prohibitively expensive.

There's also generally a sense of bleak doom and defeat permeating the show, both in the ticking clock Faraday has to save his planet, our own planet running out of time, and the show's framing as a continuation of the movie. In episode 2 we meet Thomas Newton, the same character from the 1976 film, now played by Bill Nighy. "The Man Who Fell to Earth" positions itself as a direct continuation of the film, with Nighy's Newton having arrived on Earth 40 years ago only to fail in his mission, and calling on Faraday to complete things instead. It is a smart and fascinating way to both acknowledge the classic film and not step on its toes too much, while also upping the ante in terms of the futility of Faraday's actions.

It remains to be seen if "The Man Who Fell to Earth" will stick more closely to the original story in future episodes, and for how long the premise can remain fresh and interesting. For now, this is a promising, different take that still retains some of the drama and darkness of the source material while providing some fun and fresh new material to feel relevant as something new.

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" premieres April 24, 2022, on Showtime.