Thursday, June 16, 2011

Premier Review: "Falling Skies"

Series Premier:
Sunday June 19th 9-11 (TNT)

Alien invasion stories are nothing new. In fact, alien invasion stories by Steven Spielberg aren't new either. But Spielberg has credibility thanks to movies like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "War of the Worlds" and even "E.T." So it's no surprise that science fiction fans, myself included, have been eagerly looking forward to the new TNT series Falling Skies thanks to its distinction of being helmed by Spielberg along with DreamWorks Television heads Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank and Graham Yost and screenwriter Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan").

For those wondering if Spielberg has successfully brought the alien invasion epic to television-- the answer is yes.

It's impossible not to watch "Falling Skies" and not draw parallels to shows like "Battlestar Galactica" or "The Walking Dead" due to the inevitable similarities in stories that focus on humanity's struggle to survive after a massive catastrophe. But "Falling Skies" does the unexpected by jumping ahead past the initial shock that propels most shows of it's kind and settles in after most of the Earth's population has been wiped out and mankind is nothing but ragged bands of survivors divided up into groups of fighters and civilians. Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) is a Boston history professor who has three sons, two of which are with him and one who has been taken by the aliens (referred to as "skitters" thanks to their spider-like form) and "tethered" along with other teenage humans and used as a form of slave labor for unknown reasons. Despite his career as an academic Mason has proven to be an effective fighter thanks to his knowledge of military tactics and has become one of the leaders among the surviving populace.

Because the survival of the human race is so much in doubt the fighting men and women have taken leadership  and  anyone old enough to hold a gun is thrown into the battle. Tom's oldest son Hal (Drew Roy) is already battle hardened at seventeen, though by no means the youngest warrior. Anna Glass (Moon Bloodgood) becomes the voice of the civilians as one of the few doctors to survive the initial attack as she tries to shelter the children of the group and help them cope with their new reality.

Watching "Falling Skies" it's easy to wonder why the show was made on the heels of the cancellation of the series "V" and the continuing run of "The Walking Dead" because of their similarities. But once the show gets some momentum it becomes clear that, while it is built on archetypes, that isn't where it intends on staying. The academic-turned-warrior isn't new to most audiences, but once Mason's credentials as a man who can conveniently quote military lore are established, the character is quietly allowed to evolve. The fears I initially had that the military might be characterized as heavy-handed dictators was quickly put to rest as the script deftly weaves a kind of truce between the various groups. There will be animosity later for sure, but it's unlikely to be one-sided.

But what really moves "Falling Skies" is the cast. Noah Wyle is the heart of the show and he couldn't be more perfect for the part. He's not a showy actor but he's credible as a man who has not only the strength to fight for his sons, but for the entire human race. Moon Bloodgood is also very believable as Dr. Glass and doesn't come across as just a pretty face. But if I had to pick an early favorite it would have to be Colin Cunningham in the role of outlaw biker John Pope; whose transition from the stereotype of the racist redneck to someone with a surprising level of erudite depth is unexpected. It's unclear whether Pope will land as a good-guy or a bad-guy, but one thing is for sure-- I want to know more about this character.

The motives of the alien invaders aren't  known and it doesn't seem as if that's a question that will be answered any time soon. We get a close up look of the "skitters" and their mechanical sentries ("mechs") and a far-away glance at their Earth-bound stations, but the ships that brought them there are still not seen. A big component of the show seems to be the pacing and the slow reveal of certain facts and there is no reason to believe that any mysteries will be solved anytime soon. So the show doesn't rely solely on action sequences or scary aliens to make the show interesting and the human story is smartly allowed to be told.

Like "Battlestar Galactica" it appears that questions of faith will also be a recurrent thread throughout the show as people try to reconcile the notion of God and the proof of alien life. But, thankfully, the topic is brought up briefly and with enough tact that I don't think we're in for any particular metaphorical bomb-throwing. The script is actually very impressively done as it walks a fine line among many potential narrative hazards. While the characters themselves may hold to particular beliefs, it doesn't seems as if the show itself is making any judgments and that is a very good thing.

As I watched the show I found myself ranking it among my favorite sci-fi series' and I'd have to say that, so far, it has the potential to be a really good show. While it doesn't hit you with the opening intensity of "Battlestar Galactica"  or "The Walking Dead" it has a consistency within the first two episodes that bodes well for its future success. But the best measure of how good a show is whether or not I want to see more-- and after the cliff-hanger in the second episode, I'm wondering how I'm going to wait until the next installment.

Highly recommended.


Budd said...

Wait, they are running this against GoT. I may have to catch it On Demand.

SQT said...

I didn't think of that. I always watch everything on tape because I have kids so I don't know the actual showtimes for anything.

Michael Offutt said...

How did you see this already? I thought it didn't start until this weekend?

SQT said...

I was the lucky recipient of a review copy!

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm very glad to hear this. I really want to like this and get into it. Cool.

Lesa said...

Found your blog through the Dreams&Speculation blog. I saw the preview for this show last week and have been trying to remember the name. Can't wait to watch it.

Jim Haley said...

I'm not sure I would have even realized this was coming out this past weekend without your review/reminder (though I knew Spielberg was doing a new sci-fi TV series), so I checked it out.

It was good, though I would not yet rank it as one of my favorite TV series. I didn't appreciate the use of the kids at the beginning to "set the stage" so to speak, giving us their viewpoint on how the invasion went down and killed all their parents and such. I felt like it was trying too hard to get me to feel emotional, to pull those strings, without really earning the right to do so. I was also a little concerned at first that I was going to have to suffer through "kid torture" what with the descriptions of children being tethered - but once we see those "kids" later on, they all looked to be teenaged or older, so I was a little relieved about that.

I will also say that I'm waiting for the big reveal that some human is actually an alien hybrid, or the mother of Tom's children was an alien (or at the very least, we've got to have the human who's working with the aliens), but the stories so far were a little less familiar than I expected them to be (especially the introduction of the gang in the second episode). There were a few head scratching moments for me (300 people moving camp in the middle of the day, walking around in the middle of streets in full view - did I miss the part where they said the aliens are nocturnal or something?) but the special effects were reminiscent of Battlestar, and the show was good enough that I'll probably tune back in for another go. I'm betting that the season finale will find them going up against that ship/base - a build up over this season which allows for a nice climax while leaving them with plenty of options to explore in the next season.

SQT said...

Jim-- I must be dense. I didn't even think of the daytime thing. We say the mechs moving during the day and I did think it odd that hiding in a ditch was enough to outsmart them. And yeah-- they're totally working up to attacking the base ship.

I still think it'll be a good series. There will obviously be logic gaps that will have to be addressed, but the cast is good and there's a better than average team behind it. So I'll invest some time in it.