Luther: The Fallen Sun opens in theaters on February 24, 2023, and premieres on Netflix on March 10, 2023.
After five stellar seasons, BBC’s Luther series goes out with a whimper in a comically elaborate feature film that certainly has more polish than the show, but none of the gravitas or allure. Directed by Jamie Payne and written by show creator Neil Cross – the pair who gave rogue Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) a fitting send-off in season 5 – Luther: The Fallen Sun retcons the show’s note-perfect ending in order to introduce a brand-new serial killer arch nemesis, lukewarm commentary on the internet age, and some non-stop plotting. It’s meant to be thrilling, but the result is narrative whiplash as Luther ping-pongs between locations and scenarios with little room for the character-centric introspections that made the series work.
The show – whose 20 episodes were released a handful at a time between 2010 and 2019 – concluded with DCI Luther being handcuffed, in a moving scene, by a reluctant Detective Superintendent/DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley). Luther’s fate was of his own making, after skirting legal and moral lines to apprehend suspects for a decade, while Schenk’s internal conflict in the finale allowed him to finally feel like a disappointed father figure to Luther. All that careful and thoughtful closure goes out the window soon after The Fallen Sun begins, where the series’ ending has been remixed to involve a new character entirely: serial killer/tech billionaire David Robey (Andy Serkis). It turns out he’s secretly responsible for Luther ending up behind bars! In the parlance of Daniel Craig’s Bond movies, Robey is “the author of all [Luther’s] pain” – or at least some of his pain, as it were.
The series’ throughline was arguably the bizarre but fascinating relationship between Luther and serial killer Alice Morgan, and in her absence, The Fallen Sun attempts to use its rewrite to forge a personal connection between Robey and Luther. However, Robey’s involvement in putting Luther behind bars never comes up again beyond the opening scenes, so it’s little more than a retcon for retcon’s sake.
It’s little more than a retcon for retcon’s sake.
To his credit, Robey is a fascinating villain on paper. He’s a man with seemingly infinite resources and omniscience, to the point that he can blackmail practically anyone into helping him kidnap his victims and execute them semi-publicly. Serkis, while admirably unhinged in his lofty musings about shame, has a strangely cartoonish presence created by his exaggerated wig and his impish desire to become involved with his victims’ personal lives. His murderous exhibitionism, coupled with Luther’s own guilt over failing to stop him, quickly yields a cat-and-mouse scenario wherein Luther escapes from prison to catch Robey while the police are on both their tails.
A recently retired Schenk is even called back in to help apprehend Luther, courtesy of his straight-laced, no-nonsense replacement, Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo), but Schenk’s previous emotional investment in Luther is swept under the rug. Instead, the former DSU is used as a plot device who calls Luther over the phone to help the police map out his next move. Raine, meanwhile, plays the traditional series role of the straightforward, honorable foil to the morally grey Luther, but Erivo is similarly shackled by the demands of the ever-moving plot, which rarely slows down to allow Raine to even consider how getting sucked into this particular rabbit hole might compromise her morality.
Elba’s performance suffers similarly, since the story’s demands send Luther immediately from place to place on a technological scavenger hunt the moment he receives new information. One of the series’ highlights was its Criminal Minds-like psychobabble; even though its view on sociopaths and serials killers was plucked from pure fantasy, the puzzle pieces falling slowly into place were usually a treat to watch thanks to the way Elba pondered them and the way Luther relayed his conclusions to his coworkers (or his serial killer beau) with a sense of command. By making Luther a solo act, The Fallen Sun robs Elba of the opportunity to translate the plot and its themes for the audience through Luther’s gruff filter.
By making Luther a solo act, The Fallen Sun robs Elba of the opportunity to translate the plot and its themes.
Instead, the film moves between action sequences with reckless abandon, with little time for its main character to absorb Robey’s actions and methodologies, let alone be bothered enough by them to take radical action. This version of Luther makes no difficult decisions, or even particularly risky ones. His morality is set in stone and his conclusions about Robey’s methods and psychology arrive all of a sudden, robbing us of one of the most enjoyable tenets of the procedural genre: watching a detective piece things together.
Luther: The Fallen Sun photos
As a result, Luther: The Fallen Sun is only procedural in theory. Its mile-a-minute progression, and its serial killer’s flair and twisted morality make it more of a hybrid between The Dark Knight and the Saw series, only a version of that crossover that’s a lot less interesting than it sounds.
Its biggest faults come courtesy of the way it frames its hero and villain. On one hand, the movie takes for granted that Luther exists in the public imagination as an idea or a concept, like Bond or Batman, and that audiences will be automatically enamored by him wearing his familiar coat or retrieving his old car (most viewers likely have no idea what he drives). The truth is that people care about Luther because he views heroism as his burden and sacred mission, no matter what it costs him or the people he loves. In The Fallen Sun Luther has no loved ones, so nothing is really at stake, so this story’s reverential view of him is rendered entirely without merit.
On the flip side, Robey’s blackmail is only explored in the broadest of strokes. Conceptually, using the internet to discern people’s darkest, most shameful secrets is a charged idea that preys on surveillance paranoia, but rare are the moments when people’s reluctant actions are actually put in the context of their secrets actually are. We never learn what information Robey has on most characters and so, much like Luther, their moral dilemmas are never compelling. In both cases, the audience is left in the dark about why anyone is doing pretty much anything.
Perhaps the one advantage The Fallen Sun has over the series is a Netflix budget, which allows for establishing helicopter shots of London’s skyline, a larger scale with more extras, and a more vibrant palette. But the show never needed these flourishes to tell a focused character story, even when it veered into the ridiculous with its increasingly operatic killers. You could, in theory, shoot a Luther story on a flip phone and have it be enrapturing, simply by giving Elba the right material – the right reasons to huff and be annoyed before having to skirt around the law and forge uneasy alliances for the umpteenth time – rather than creating a polished action-thriller with no soul, and with no perspective on the character of DCI Luther beyond some perceived iconography that, ironically, reduces him to an empty shell.
After five great seasons, Luther’s feature film adaptation proves to be a major let down, robbing the title character and his loyal fans of the little delights that made the series work. Andy Serkis makes for a fittingly over-the-top villain – he’s Jigsaw by way of Mark Zuckerberg – but Idris Elba is afforded little opportunity to return to the role of Luther, the tortured human being. Instead, he plays Luther the idea, a broad-strokes detective type with familiar attire but no internal life, and no narrative purpose beyond chasing bad guys from place to place.