Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Falling Skies on TNT – Alien Apocalypse by the Numbers

It took me a few weeks to get around to checking out Falling Skies, and I am glad that I made a commitment to blog 5 days per week, as I now go out of my way to read, watch or play virtually anything new that falls into my niche here, and I've gotten some really great entertainment that I'd have otherwise missed. I'm going to start right off by saying that I like Falling Skies a lot. If you are looking for a simple thumbs up or thumbs down from me, it is an enthusiastic up. I say this because I may spend quite a large portion of my review picking at nits or comparing it to the even better show it could be, and I don't want the negative comments I have to be the main thrust of what is remembered from my impressions. It is not a perfect show by any means, but it is a damned fine one.

The opening scene in Falling Skies sets the stage quickly and deftly, as we hear children describe what happened in the months previous as they draw to process the horrors they've had to live through. The audience quickly learns that aliens came to Earth, and we did not fire on them, supposing they might be friendly. We were wrong. They destroyed our armies and weapons and annihilated the majority of Earth's human population right away. They kill adults, but they capture children and put some sort of biotechnological harness on them that turns them into mindless slaves. We are immediately drawn into the post-apocalyptic setting and the sort of new society that has come from it. Most fighters in the new resistance are very old, retired military, very young, or used to do something else, but as able-bodied adults, they fight now.

The setting is immediately familiar to anyone who has watched any movie or series where the apocalypse happened recently and as a result of an external malevolent threat. The typical “monster” in these sorts of things is, of course, the zombie, but we've seen it done with dragons in Reign of Fire, and aliens in other places as well. The world has been taken over, and humanity has to cope with the ever-present threat of the creatures themselves, as well as the very real dangers presented when a society completely collapses. Our protagonist in this particular tale is a former history teacher and father of three boys (Noah Wyle), one of whom was taken by the aliens. He has joined the ranks of the resistance fighters since the death of his wife and is quickly promoted to a leadership position under a grizzled and rather unpleasant retired soldier. The settlement the resistance created became too large to escape the notice of the aliens, so forces of 100 “fighters” and 200 “civilians” split up for a chance at survival.

Caring father who doesn't want to fight leading a group of rebels.
A few years back, this would have been Mel Gibson, before he went nuts.

The characters, with very few exceptions, play to familiar archetypes. We have the eldest son who is cocky and rebellious, frequently challenging his father's authority. There is the sympathetic doctor who speaks up for the rights of the civilians in a society that is de facto controlled by the improvised sort of soldier caste. The grizzled leader who is obstinate for no reason frequently, and while being in charge seems to have no concept of how to manage the morale of those he leads. And, of course, there is the caring father, reluctant fighter and man of peace and learning whose ideas are typically clearly the right ones, but who is shut down so as to not be a threat to the grizzled commander's authority. When we meet other characters, they also tend to neatly fall into established tropes, such as the gang of violent racist rapists who are lead by an extremely intelligent and well-spoken, but entirely amoral man.

These characters all start from familiar and safe ground, and as a consequence, I don't think that many of them are as interesting as, say, the similar team of survivors we met in The Walking Dead. There, we saw things get complicated with the Best Friend and Protector, understanding that people can have multiple roles. “Good guy” and “bad guy” can easily become murky concepts as people make decisions based on what they feel is right at the time. I do like the inclusion of a thirteen year old in the emergent “fighter” caste, who watches children only a few years younger play and exist as something to be protected, while he is out with the adults fighting. I have some hope that the characters will grow and develop out of their stock archetypes as the story continues to be told.

I'm totally not going to give an order so stupid and horrible that it demands to be disobeyed.

The aliens themselves look amazing, and they move in distinctive and creepy ways, with their six-legs and swollen carapace-like heads. They are fast, tough, and extremely heavily armed with a weapon that is reminiscent of the triple-beam laser from Predator. They are supported by bipedal mechanized infantry that have even heavier weapons mounted, and whose armor effectively makes them immune to conventional small arms. The creatures display tactical intelligence, using stores of food and weapons as bait to trap groups of humans, and they seem to be adept at tracking and hunting their prey. We see two types of ships, the light fighters that provide air support and focus in on sources of heat on the ground, and the huge (about the size of a human city) structure in the distance that is presumably the alien mothership.

The stories told about how people cope with loss, deal with the collapse of everything they've ever known, and try to fight to survive without losing the essential elements of themselves that make them human may not be a new story, but it is one well told. The performances of the principal cast is uniformly good and the production of the series itself is of very high quality. I did notice that the sound design seemed to make dialogue way too quiet as compared to explosions and music during fight sequences, as I had to turn the volume frantically up or down to wither hear what was going on or to not wake up my sleeping wife. The visual effects are on par with Hollywood films in terms of quality, falling short only of the standards set by summer blockbusters who rely on such effects to distract the audience from the lack of a coherent script. For TV, the quality of both the scripts and the effects here are impressive.

Overall, I look forward to the rest of the season and hope that with the traditional broadcast networks constantly dropping the ball when it comes to science fiction and the “SyFy” channel preferring to air wrestling, that cable stations like TNT and AMC could be the future of great geek TV. We've certainly had a lot to complain about in the last few years, but shows like Falling Skies give me hope for a brighter future... (as least for us. The future for the survivors of the 2nd Massachusetts militia, not so rosy.) The industry juice that comes with the involvement of Stephen Spielberg doesn't hurt, and the series has already been picked up for a second season.
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Monty said...

Started watching it last week, but missed the second episode - damn! Have to catch up...quite like it though...

Alpha said...

"“SyFy” channel"

Makes my skin crawl...

Zombie Ad said...

Sounds worth a watch.

phairlever said...

The 9 year old is 14 in real life, the 16 year old 27, and the chick who is supposed to be 18 or thereabouts is 33. Plus the aliens don't have any kind of thermal imaging??? Our own thermal imaging technology can spot a rabbit from 25 miles up. Too much suspension of disbelief for me.

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