Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Falling Skies "Live and Learn"

Non Spoiler Review:
Steven Spielberg and TNT promise to deliver a different take on the alien invasion theme compared to what we've been used to on television (I'm talking to you, V). The opening credits are a montage of children's drawings depicting the arrival of an alien force. At first everyone thought they might be friendly, until they EMP'ed the planet, destroyed all the military and nuked the world's capital cities. The series picks up six month into this occupation, where enclaves of humans are struggling to survive.

Falling Skies draws influence in tone from Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. The visuals are typical post-apocalyptic ruins, accented with the occasional alien tech or life forms, and come off quite well. The first episode does the usual introductions and set ups, with a simple plot about retreating from Boston and a mission to get food—all to start some of the ongoing storylines.

In addition to the everyday challenges of just getting by, there's an additional mystery surrounding missing children. Of course, given there is no communication beyond local groups, the greater motivations of the invaders, and the fate of the rest of the country and planet remain unknown.

Falling Skies features Noah Wyle as Tom Mason, a teacher of military history. He has three children, one of whom is missing. Moon Bloodgood is Dr. Anne. The military leader is Weaver, a Golf War veteran who isn't happy carting civilians along with his militia when he'd rather be fighting. There's an assortment of lesser characters waiting to be developed, much like Lost.

For a first episode, I was pretty impressed and creeped out in a few scenes given the portrayal of the aliens and the ominous sense of defeat that is already permeating the show. The human populace makes an effort to appear optimistic, but they are simply in a continuous state of retreat against a superior force. The series has the makings of being a groundbreaking take on the usual alien invasion theme that never seems to get a good presentation on television, so this is off to a good start.

Spoilers Now!
Six months into the alien occupation, a survivor group in Boston finds supplies running low and alien activity closing in on them. Tom Mason and his eldest son are on a failed mission to get food where they lose several men to the Scitters (their name for the six-legged creatures). The aliens also use bipedal robotic war machines called Mechs. Weaver, the man in charge, orders a retreat as they watch a Scitter ship bomb the area.

Tom is a military historian (which we're told, like, ten times). He's already lost one son, Ben, to the Scitters, who use a device called a harness to enslave adolescent children. His oldest son, Hal, is a member of the resistance, as well, while younger son Matt is just hoping things would get back to the way they were. It's also his birthday, which is kind of a bummer given the situation.

Tom also has a good rapport with Dr. Anne. Shes a pediatrician and a valuable commodity as a doctor. She also serves as therapist for some of the kids (including Matt) dealing with the deaths of their parents. Tom returns to his son, but is quickly called into a meeting with the head of their group, Porter.

The invaders can apparently detect populations larger than 300 now, so the commander of the militia breaks up their community into smaller groups of 100 military/200 civilians in order to give them all a better chance of survival, then sending them off to different hiding places. Tom isn't happy about abandoning Boston given all the harnessed kids still missing.

Weaver is named head of the 2nd Massachusetts given his army/reserve background. He's a very pro-military (anti-civilian) commander who disagrees with the retreat and wants to stay and fight too. But Porter puts Tom as his second in command to ensure the civilians are looked after as they make their way to a new hiding place in Acton.

Weaver thinks they can hold their own against the Scitters given some of the ships haven't come back since the invasion. Porter disagrees. He's taking the scientists he has with him to try to figure out how to get the harnesses off kids without killing them. He wishes them all good luck.

The group treks out of Boston. Weaver's not happy having to feed so many people aside from soldiers. With supplies running low, Tom wants to go back to a food warehouse to check it out, but Weaver won't waste men on that kind of mission, so lets Tom take six volunteers and meet up with them later on.

While they wait for Hal to scout around, Tom comes across a dead boy with a harness half torn off his back. It makes him think of his missing son, Ben...whom Hal just happens to see in a procession of children and several Mechs walking by down the road. He runs back to tell his father and wants to go rescue his brother right away. Tom gets into a wrestling match with him and convinces his son they have to finish their mission, then they'll go after Ben.

At the warehouse, the group manages to start stocking up on food until Hal comes across a Scitter which has been waiting as a trap. A Mech shows up, too, but Tom manages to blow it up, then they shoot the Scitter. The group gathers around as it slowly dies in front of them, wondering what it's thinking.

Tom and company rendezvous with everyone on the road, bringing back food, plus a cool skateboard as a gift for Matt, which he promptly shares with the other children. Weaver can't bring himself to congratulate Tom, though.

Tom brings up the matter of finding his son. He wants to go look for him, but Weaver insists they continue on to the Acton armory. Tom agrees, but just wants a chance to find Ben after they get there and restock their weapons. Weaver's lost a son himself, so Tom suggests he might do the same if he saw a chance of rescuing him. But Weaver is resolved that they're all dead. Tom counters that the aliens die just like us. They just need to get close. 

The Verdict:
Falling Skies suffers the same growing pains of any premiere—introducing its characters in ways that tend to be obvious and exposition-heavy.

It was refreshing that the aliens were seen right away without trying to cloak them in mystery. They're creepy enough seen up close, and remind me of some of the creatures from The Mist. The Mechs, flying craft, and the quadruped mother ships are all cool effects, too.

Some care needs to be taken in explaining the tactical situation. The aliens don't seem to be on an urgent mission of extermination. One would think they would be able to track human movements quite easily (especially if people move about in the day like we've seen). Weaver also remarked that the Scitter's mother ships seem to have left from the initial attack. I'm hoping we get some flashbacks (Lost style) to really flesh out the events (and the characters pre-acopalypse).

There's a good pool of characters, and Tom and Anne are especially a highlight after this first episode. Tom's children didn't seem tedious or cliched at all, and the few scenes of relative normalcy actually provided a great contrast to the massive darkness looming on the edges of their lives.

Yes, we did hear Tom drop example after example of military history lessons to anyone who might listen. He did raise some valid points, but towards the end he was seeming a bit naive. His suggestion that they don't have to win, just make it inconvenient enough for the aliens to stay, is a bit hopeful on his part. None of his earlier military analogies took into account such a vast difference in technology and even agendas on the part of the invaders.

I'm wondering how long before the inevitable military/civilians quarrel explodes. I really hope it doesn't come to that, as it just never makes sense that the military would think they're fighting for anything but the civilians. Weaver definitely needs to get some depth or he'll quickly be the man everyone hopes gets killed.

Of course, there are the mysteries of the harnesses and their true purpose, as well as the reasons behind the invasion to look forward to. Coupled with good characterization and some mature and more complex storylines, Falling Skies could really open up the genre. It's a nice companion piece to The Walking Dead if you like your post-apocalyptic survival stories.

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