Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Review: FALLING SKIES, 1.1 & 1.2 - "Live & Learn" & "The Armory"

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

This Steven Spielberg-produced alien invasion drama makes some wise creative decisions, not least its acceptance that the genre doesn't need to be laboriously set-up nowadays. After a brief opening narration depicting an extra-terrestrial invasion using children's drawings, we're dropped into a familiar situation: a post-apocalypse, where survivors of a six-month-old alien attack are struggling to stay alive and mount some form of resistance. It's a spiritual follow-up to Spielberg's War Of The Worlds if he'd given us a pessimistic ending, imbued with a focus on character that evokes The Walking Dead and Jericho. It's unoriginal and largely predictable cable TV fare, but also good fun, unwilling to beat about the bush (a full-blown alien's sighted within minutes), and realizes long-term success rests on building a firm foundation of character.

History professor Tom Mason (ER's Noah Wyle) is our bearded protagonist, the second-in-command of a resistance unit known as the 2nd Massachusetts, comprised of "fighters" and a large group of civilians they protect. Prone to voicing morale-boosting historical analogies about their situation trying to defeat a superior enemy, Mason's accompanied by teenage son Hal (Drew Roy) and younger son Matt (Maxim Knight), but carries a deep sorrow because third son Ben (Connor Jessup) is missing, presumed dead. However, it's soon revealed that Ben's under the control of the alien "skitters": six-legged lizards who are interested in children, attaching a spinal parasite to them in order to control their minds. Shades of a sanitized Torchwood: Children Of Earth, no?

There are also nods the aforementioned War Of The Worlds remake, in how some of the aliens stomp around in bipedal machines referred to as "mechs", indiscriminately blasting humans and occasionally emitting a droning whine not unlike the trumpeting of Worlds' tripods. In fact, there's not much about Falling Skies that isn't reminiscent of other sci-fi, but it's appreciated how quickly the show announces the debts it owes and just gets on with telling its own story. There's no teasing what the aliens look like, or the design of their spaceships (which resemble skyscraper-sized cricket stumps straddling entire cities), as we're dropped into a show that already feels like it's aired a half-dozen episodes before the pilot.

Created by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) and involving the talent of admired writer-producers like Graham Yost (Justified) and Mark Verheiden (Battlestar Galactica), it's also a touch above most shows of its ilk, especially in how it deftly balances characters with action. There are some lovely touches to demonstrate the change in values of a post-apocalypse, too—such as a scene where Mason decides between Charles Dickens or Jules Verne books according to weight instead of merit. You might as well throw the Complete Works Of William Shakespeare on a bonfire right now. It was also interesting seeing how the itinerant community works: ad hoc school lessons in a field, brief moments of fun when a skateboard's found for the kids to play on, a precious cupcake used as a little boy's birthday cake, and the contentious fact the military get to sleep in houses because their welfare takes priority over the tent-dwelling civilians they're protecting, etc. Plenty of opportunity for infighting in the future, as we already learn that civilians are sometimes referred to as "eaters" by their protectors.

Falling Skies is immediately appealing because of the classic premise, Wyle makes for a strong hero with hopes and aspirations you can get involved with, there's decent support from Will Patton (as hard-ass Commander Weaver) and Moon Bloodgood (as a compassionate doctor)—who's no stranger to post-apocalypses after Terminator Salvation—and there's still plenty to explore in the show's mythology and background. A few flashbacks pre-invasion may be on the cards, who knows. Plus, unlike Survivors and Walking Dead, which have very depressing backdrops, there's a sense of hope in Falling Skies because the war's still in its infancy. This isn't a show following the remnants of mankind as the flame inexorably dims on humanity, but a drama where people still have a reason to fight and win back their planet.

Overall, it's most definitely derivative, features a few dodgy special effects because of budget limitations, and so far the female/black characters are wafer-thin personalities edging toward stereotype, but Falling Skies remembers to put character above visuals and crafts an effective two-part opener. I'm not convinced it's complex or fresh enough to elicit deep thought and fervid loyalty, but it should provide some entertainment.


  • Spielberg's long-running in-joke with George Lucas continued here, with another instance of a Spielberg-affiliated project involving Star Wars toys. Check out the figurines used to plan strategies in an early scene...
written by Robert Rodat (1.1) & Graham Yost (1.2) / directed by Carl Franklin (1.1) & Greg Beeman (1.2) / 19 June 2011 / TNT