Film and TV

Falling Skies: "Pilot"

I don't want to sound like a Negative Nathan here, but was another alien invasion story really necessary? I'd run out of fingers and toes trying to count previous attempts - from the original War of the Worlds (1953) and V (1983) to...War of the Worlds (2005) and V (2009).

TNT's Falling Skies picks up six months after aliens have landed, when the military might of the world has failed and 90% of the Earth's population has already been wiped out. That puts a somewhat new spin on the situation, I suppose. Creators Robert Rodat (screenwriter, Saving Private Ryan) and Steven Spielberg (who has some experience with aliens) are hoping the concept of the last remnants of humanity fighting an insurgent campaign against an occupying extraterrestrial force will be unique enough to win viewers.

Whatever. At least it ain't Hawthorne.

"They didn't want to be friends."

An introductory sequence consisting of children's pictures tells the story of how the aliens arrived, then defeated the standing military forces of the planet, then started...enslaving our children (youngsters are "harnessed" through the use of a leech-like organism attached to their necks)?

We meet young Matt Mason, played by Maxim Knight (..."Maxim?" How did Mama Knight allow her son to get named after a PG-13 girlie mag?). He's one of several hundred civilians tagging along with a quasi-military force resisting the aliens. Father Tom (Noah Wyle) is a former history professor and one of the force's mid-level commanders. He returns with his other son Hal (Drew Roy) from an abortive food raid that affords us our first glimpse of the aliens, referred to as "skitters" for their arachnoid appearance.

The initial effect is...underwhelming. Even computer generated, the aliens look Harryhausen-esque.

Tom has another son, Ben, who we learn a little later in the show has also been harnessed. Tom is torn between the desire to get his boy back and continue the larger fight. Though we have to wonder exactly what he'd do with the kid once he got him. Simply removing the harnessing organism doesn't work, as any separation kills the child.

The aliens' ultimate purpose remains unknown at this point, which for the time being allows us to get past the obvious questions that arise from conventionally armed resistance fighters taking on an alien force with weapons capable of obliterating an entire city.

The rest of the humans are largely cyphers at this point. Capt. weaver, the gruff fellow commander who frequently locks horns with Tom, is played by veteran actor Will Patton, doing what Will Patton does best. Military discipline has sunk a bit since the invasion, however, or maybe Weaver previously served in a branch that didn't mind ponytails. Actual former Marine Dale Dye plays Col. Porter, and Moon Bloodgood (...) is Anne Glass, the resident medical professional (actually a pediatrician, handy to have when you're going to be dealing with a bunch of harnessed kids in the near future).

The humans decide to flee from a growing garrison/outpost in metro Boston that's sending out more and more skitters and "mechs," the bipedal robots providing the bulk of the aliens' ground firepower. The skitters are exceedingly tough, and the mechs are nigh impervious to small arms.

For a historian, Tom's invoking of prior resistance movements is a little off. The battle of Stirling Bridge didn't directly lead to Scottish independence (that would be Falkirk, almost 20 years later), and the Persians weren't exactly occupying Greece during after the Battle of Marathon. And unless a French alien force is planning on landing as well, parallels with the American Revolution are a trifle misplaced. Worse than that, he's the kind of prof who likes to give impromptu lectures. That's how we know he's a professor.

Meanwhile, his son Hal has bigger problems than an invasion, as he has to deal with the romantic triad created by the devout Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel) and militant Maggie (Sarah Sanguin Carter), a recruit from another, less noble group of humans led by John Pope (Colin Cunningham). Pope, at least, is honest about the bountiful criminal opportunities afforded by the new power structure.

I'll give Falling Skies a little while to get its legs under it, but watching the premiere it was hard not to be reminded of every other alien invasion/dystopic future movie that's come before. The shot of Tom and Hal and company returning to the homestead after the raid, for example, could have been lifted from the original Terminator. And there are other echoes: the lethality of removing the alien controlling organisms is reminiscent of the facehuggers in Alien (the whole concept itself reminiscent of Invaders from Mars, Star Trek, or Futurama). Shit, even the GTO with the .50 cal on it is reminiscent of the Terminator movies as well.

It also suffers from that phenomenon peculiar to post-apocalyptic network TV fare, in that all the survivors are impossibly attractive. That end times stuff is probably a lot easier to stomach with all that eye candy walking around.

Well, except maybe Will Patton.

So we'll see. You can't judge a series by its first episode, and time will tell if these characters will be satisfactorily fleshed out and the overall story is compelling enough to keep us watching.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar