Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TV REVIEW: Falling Skies: "Live and Learn"/"The Armory"

The new TNT sci-fi series from Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodat called Falling Skies opens with a unique conceit. 

The story of an all-out alien invasion of Earth is recounted in the art work of a school-age child, as the same child describes the attack in words.  The viewer learns immediately -- and in conjunction with colorful crayon imagery -- how an alien EMP took out electronics on Earth; how our cities have been destroyed, and how the aliens "harness" human children as mindless slaves.  That final touch reminded me a bit of John Christopher's Tripods, though there the process was referred to as "capping," if memory serves.

Regardless, the childish artwork proves an inexpensive, creative, and dynamic way of commencing this epic tale in media res, and suggests a level of narrative ingenuity that the remainder of the first two episodes, "Live and Learn," and "The Armory," somehow don't quite manage to live up to.   But those first five minutes are riveting.

As viewed through the eyes of a child, the alien invasion appears all the more frightening.  It's an absolute end to the safety and security of childhood in America as we now understand it, a piercing of the protective bubble all parents attempt to construct around their young ones. 

In short order, Falling Skies introduces us to Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a man faces this particular horror.  He has joined the resistance to battle the alien "Skitters," six-legged aliens who deploy frightening armored robots called "Mechs" and who fly over human cities in swift, silent air-ships.  

Tom is the father of three boys, and one of his beloved sons has been captured and harnessed by the aliens.  As "Live and Learn" begins, we learn that Tom has been promoted to second in command of one unit in the resistance army, a unit consisting of 100 soldiers and 200 civilians. His superior is the no-nonsense, gruff Captain Weaver (Will Patton).

Tom's most interesting quality, however, involves his world view.  He is a former professor of American history and therefore able to contextualize for his brethren (and the viewing audience) this new fight against a technologically superior fighting force.

Tom reminds his soldiers, for instance, that in human history there are many instances of inferior armed forces defeating superior ones, namely in the American Revolution, but also in Ancient Greece, and so on.  "Ever the professor" (as another character notes), Tom is a unique and intellectual hero whose knowledge of history (and specificially military history) can provide hope in what seems a hopeless struggle.  Wyle is good in the central role, and already I am enjoying the fact that Tom is not a physical superman, a law enforcement official, or a modern cowboy in mentality.  Instead, he's an able and believable surrogate for a lot of us in the audience: an everyman and family man faced with an extraordinary situation, trying to do his best.

In the second episode, "The Armory," Tomn's humanist perspective is matched and balanced by that of a criminal and warlord, John Pope (Colin Cunningham). In blunt terms, Pope informs Tom that he is using the wrong analogy.  We're not the early Americans fighting the Red Coats, Pope insists.  No, we're the American Indian, facing wave after wave of technologically superior, unstoppable white men.  And we'll share the same fate as the Indians too: extinction.  It's a terrifying thought, and this duel of philosophies makes for one of Falling Skies best and most chilling moments in the opening two hours.

Much has been made in the media about the perceived similarities between TNT's Falling Skies and AMC's The Walking Dead.  It's an apt comparison in some ways, since both programs deal with human beings attempting to survive after the end of our technological, 21st century culture.  So far, where the two series differ most is in the viewpoint on mankind himself.

In The Walking Dead -- even with the apocalypse happening -- man is still roiled by pettiness; by racism and prejudice.  He is unable to organize in more than small groups, understand the nature of his enemy, or form much of an effective resistance against the zombies.  Although zombies are an ever-present danger in The Walking Dead, wanton and inappropriate sexual appetites are still sated, interpersonal resentments fester, and redneck-ism thrives.  Although a (small) sense of community does develop over the first season, there's still much disagreement among the lead characters.

At least so far, Falling Skies is proving much more upbeat. 

Anti-social tendencies are downplayed here (in the first two episodes), and outlaws such as Pope are already in the process of being assimilated into the resistance by the end of the second episode.  On a wider scale, man in Falling Skies has mounted at least a semi-organized defense against the invading Skitters, and is able to win small battles against this antagonist. As we'd expect from Steven Spielberg, the approach is a little more optimistic and a little less balanced than we get in the more nuanced (and so far more impressive) The Walking Dead.

The shadow of Steven Spielberg hovers over Falling Skies in a few other ways as well.  The visuals of displaced human survivors trekking on foot across modern rural landscapes clearly recalls some of the startling and effective imagery from the director's 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds

As it was in War of the Worlds, the focus here is overtly on family matters.  In the 2005 film, Tom Cruise had to protect his young daughter and keep track of his rebellious older son.  Here, we've got Tom, his adult son, Hal (Drew Roy), his youngest son, Matt (Maxim Young), and Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) as a physician in the resistance who -- from frame one -- is clearly itching to play wife and mother to Tom and the Mason brood.   

The focus here is on how the human family sticks together in a time of crisis, not how human foibles, even in times of disaster, pull it apart.  In fact, Falling Skies opening episodes find time to celebrate young Matt's birthday, and observe, with solemnity, his wish that everything could "just be like it was."  Sowhile Falling Skies and The Walking Dead share an obsession with the downfall of man, they boast vastly different approaches and perspectives on that downfall.

Falling Skies' "Live and Learn" proves a solid series premiere that sets up the characters, their situation, and their perspective quite ably.  We catch glimpses of the terrifying aliens and get to see how the world has changed under the Skitters.  There are frightening glimpses of enslaved children, with monstrous mechanical worms implanted on their spines. 

Basically, we are an occupied planet, and there's certainly a subtext here about 21st century's America's role as occupier in foreign lands.  There some impresive vistas of the alien "base" looming over abandoned American cities, and it's impossible not to be reminded of our predator drone attacks when those alien ships fly by and indiscriminantly rain death upon those at ground level.

But after "Live and Learn," "The Armory" stalls momentum quite a bit.  The second episode concerns an attempt on Tom's part to stake out a weapons depot.  The mission goes awry and he ends up in the hands of John Pope, a criminal and nihilist.  Instead of being about the alien invasion or the human response to it, the episode is about Tom and his allies maneuvering their way into freedom, and outwitting an enemy who, we soon suspect, will prove an ally.  This episode is rather flat, emotionally-speaking, in comparison to the first hour, and doesn't move the plot along significantly or even with much interest.

Falling Skies boasts tremendous potential since it dramatizes something that both iterations of V were never able to visualize effectively: an all-out war on human soil between high-tech aliens and "primitive" humans.  Certainly, Falling Skies is already far better than the remake of V (2009 - 2010), and promises some exciting summer viewing.

Still, it's not necessarily clear sailing for this genre program.  If the series grows too dark and gritty (as the scenario would seem to promise), viewers may not take to the series.  And if the program remains so relentlessly upbeat in the face of human annihilation, it will sacrifice believability.  In other words, Falling Skies is walking a very narrow line.

Here's hoping it navigates that path well.  The sky isn't falling just yet...


  1. Thanks for these thoughts on "Falling Skies", John. I'm intrigued and have been really looking forward to the series arriving in the UK. (It does so on FX next week here for starters.) Based upon your comments here, it looks like I won't be disappointed!

  2. John.

    Nice coverage. I agree about the children's drawings and vantage point. A lot of good information is gleaned there. I particularly like the EMP suggestion in the series.

    I definitely see those low-flying ships as a nod to Terminator and less American intervention, but that's me. : )

    Your analysis of the vantage points between Pope and Tom's characters is a great one. It does make for an intelligent use of characters.

    I suspect Pope will be the Baltar- villain character. But I hope they don't play into cliches too much.

    Your essay made me think... why is it these aliens can always breathe oxygen? Maybe they can address that about the Skitters later.

    Also, your point about Spielberg's War Of The Worlds is true. Though I must tell you, that movie, for PG-13, was so frightening. I loved how the aliens sprayed that red substance all over our planet. Scary stuff!

    I do think Falling Skies has alot of potential too and I'm cautiously optimistic. It's got a lot of scale and feels very epic populated with lots of intimacy.

    I think The Walking Dead is amazing. I agree that it is better, but I do think they are very different as Falling Skies continues to establish itself.

    It still has be watching. That's a good thing. all the best John,

  3. This series is terrible and even a person like myself who's English could work out that it was actually filmed in Canada, because the dates on the war memorial they were standing in front of were 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.


  4. Hi everyone.

    Adam: I think Falling Skies has promise. I hope it will continue to be engaging, and not slip into a rut. Let me know what you think when you see it...

    SFF: I agree with you that Pope is going to become the Baltar of this group; but like you, I hope it isn't too heavy handed. Foils like that seldom work very well, over time (as Dr. Smith proved, too, I suppose). Good to know that you also love The Walking Dead...another great series! I think there's enough difference here in philosophy and story for reasonable people to enjoy both series.

    Lee: Wow, you really don't like Falling Skies, do you? :)

    best to all,

  5. I was surprised that you didn't mention, or didn't find parts to be, schlock/Hallmark momenty/needlessly maudlin.

    Personally, I found it to be a fairly interesting story, with decent characterization, but punctuated by these weird unnecessary pauses of over-sentimentalism. (Like the skateboarding scene in episode #1). These "moments of coming together" in which cheesy music inevitably played, nearly ruined an otherwise engaging story.

    (Perhaps it's because I watched this back-to-back with Game of Thrones--the gold standard of quality, earnestness, acting, direction, writing, characterization, and world-building).


  6. Hi Pete,

    I definitely felt Falling Skies was trying hard to stress the optimistic nature of humanity in its focus on the family (including the skateboarding scene) "coming together," as you note. Very, very Spielbergian. It didn't bother me too much as a one-time incident. Let's see if that sentimentality/schmaltziness recurs...

    Great comment,


  7. I agree with you, John. Falling Skies seems to be attempting to create an atmosphere of fear of impending species annihilation, while maintaining a modicum of hope that human beings are resilient and intelligent enough to overcome the overwhelming technological advantages that the aliens possess. Obviously, Tom and John are the two characters that represent the opposing views of the eventual outcome of the human race. I personally prefer an optimistic viewpoint over a pessimistic one. I think we’ve had plenty of the later in recent years, so I hope Falling Skies skews towards the prior.

    @ Sci-Fi Fanatic: I don’t know how you could jump to the conclusion that Jon Pope would become a traitor to the human race, as was Baltar in Battlestar Galactica. Before Pope was captured by the Second Massachusetts militia, he was reviling in the killing of the Skitters, which would not indicate to me that he would be willing to ally himself with them.

    I don’t understand comparing Falling Skies to The Walking Dead. These are two different genres that are dealing with a similar setting and therefore they are using those settings for two different purposes. Falling Skies is science fiction, so it is emphasizing the technological, biological and philosophical differences between two intelligent species. The Walking Dead is horror, so it is emphasizing the mostly-negative emotional reaction of humans to an unintelligent and unnatural threat. Science fiction is primarily an intellectual exercise and horror is primarily a visceral one.

    I wrote in my blog [http://guardiansofthegenre.blogspot.com/2011/06/falling-skies-sci-fi-tv-tntsunday10pm.html] about why I felt Falling Skies chose the format that it did, but I think that it has a chance to expand its current fight and flee format in the future. TV has always emphasized character above plot, so I fully expect to see more episodes that border on the sentimental; particularly if they don’t wrap up the sub-plot of Tom rescuing his “harnessed” son soon. Hopefully, they won’t take too long in uncovering the aliens in the mother ships (I’m not convinced that the Skitters are the real alien invaders), because if they keep the stories scaled too small for too long, they’ll lose the hard core science fiction fans that they need keep the show active amongst science fiction fandom.

  8. Doc,

    I've tried to comment on your entry at your blog from three different computers and it will not allow me to post. Not sure what is going on.

    I'm not making the comparisons between Walking Dead and Falling Skies. I can see it though. I'm assuming your comment is for John or other reviews out there.


  9. I knew you would like Falling Skies :).

    For me it it deja-vu, all over again. I already saw "Invasion" (2005) and it is pretty much the same thing. Just with more guns. Unfortunately for that series, a great premise, a great cast and good directing could not save it. Even if the first season ended in a major cliffhanger, we never got to learn what happened to them. It got canceled. The very poor story telling and the overwhelming soap opera implementation made it unbearable to watch.

    To continue the parallel, they too had a lot of children in that series, but by the eighth episode they ditched them all (or their overdeveloped boring story, rather) in an attempt to save whatever could be saved.

    All that being said, I really hope I'm wrong, cause I liked Noah Wile in The Librarian and in ER and I think he deserves a break. On a more selfish note, I could really use a good sci-fi series right now. Meanwhile, the only thing I will watch of this series is whatever you and others point out. Plus the ratings. http://www.tvedge.net/?page_id=4528


  10. Hi Fritz,

    Excellent comment on Falling Skies, and the difference between sci-fi and horror.

    I should make it clear, however that I was the one who brought up the comparison between Falling Skies and The Walking Dead, simply because I had read several reviews already doing so.

    I think there is a surface similarity (post-apocalypse venue) but as the review points out, I hope, there is a definitive difference in philosophy and world-view, with Falling Skies proving more optimistic. I think SFF was just responding to what I wrote in the review, not asserting that particular similarity.

    I like your idea that the Skitters are not the aliens behind the invasion. That would fit with the metaphor the series seems to be weaving: I wonder if the Skitters are mercenaries, like the Blackwater people in Iraq. That would make a very interesting twist, I agree.

    Claudiu: I was also a fan of Invasion, and also agree with you that at some point it became, overtly, soap opera.

    I wouldn't say Falling Skies gets an A or even a B+ from me at this point...only that I saw enough promise in the first two episodes to write about that promise, and think positively for the future. Already, the series has one up on V (the remake), which started off dumb and grew progressively dumber as it went along.

    Excellent comments,

  11. This show sucks. period. It is so upbeat I thought Oprah was going to show up any second handing out car keys. The tone is completely wrong for something as apocalyptic as a devastating alien invasion & occupation of Earth. The 'Walking Dead' feels right. There was more angst in 'ER' than 'Falling Skies'. I've lost complete and total interest in this show and have stopped watching altogether.