Chicken Little Was Right: A Review of Falling Skies
- Monday, July 18, 2011
What is it about the modern imagination that is so obsessed with the worst that could happen?
From science fiction's Urtext, the works of H.G. Wells, came The War of the Worlds, and ever since, the specter of invaders from outer space has been a durable subgenre where our displaced fears of conquest from some ultimate Other found expression in countless books, movies and television series. Which is perhaps why Falling Skies, the new series on TNT, seems a little too familiar.
Unlike most alien invasion stories, Falling Skies jumps into the aftermath, where an alien conquest has already happened before the narration by children begins. Their voices and childish artwork tell us that the almost instantaneous attack quickly destroyed the world's armed forces leaving only small groups of survivors retreating from the cities where the invaders have set up gigantic towers, as if H. G. Wells' tripods had built great condominiums to dwell in.
The pilot quickly focuses on a particular contingent of human survivors from Boston, calling themselves the 2nd Massachusetts, mostly civilians but led by military veterans who are trying to mount an insurgency against the aliens. The main character is Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a history professor who has studied the military tactics of great campaigns and attempts to translate these into effective attacks with his small group of fighters.
Mason lost his wife in the initial attack and two of his sons, eight-year old Matt, (Maxim Knight) and teenage Hal (Drew Roy) who is quickly turning into an effective fighter. Tom's middle son, Ben, has been among the young people captured an enslaved by organic devices that attach themselves onto the spinal columns and grow into the victim's nervous system, giving the aliens control (another ingredient from classic sci-fi).
So far Ben's recovery has driven Tom's personal goals as he takes charge of missions from their crusty leader, Captain Weaver (Will Patton), who has little patience with civilian attitudes despite his charge to protect them when he also desires to engage the enemy. So, this is sort of a meld of The Waltons meets Angry Aliens. So why do another take on a well-known plot? An overview of invasion movies can offer some perspective.
The late author, Susan Sontag, in one of her better known essays, "The Imagination of Disaster," written in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, about how popular culture, and movies in particular, have brought catastrophic visions to the screen to express our barely concealed worst fears.
But rather than depicting World War III's nuclear Armageddon of the United States vs. the Soviet Union, science fiction films of the 1950s evoked symbolic confrontations between humanity and either the monstrous spawn of our atomic weaponry (Them!, Tarantula, Godzilla and so many more) or overwhelming alien forces from space, usually Mars (George Pal's nifty 1953 version of War of the Worlds, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Invaders from Mars, et al.).
In these stories, it isn't just brute power that threatens our world, it's the frequent trope of alien mind control or alien doubles (It Came From Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or the loss of one's identity that was really haunting us. Science fiction stories succeed when they find a real-world element to resonate in our imaginations.
Would Communist brainwashing soften us up for the Soviets? Would we be bombed to oblivion? Falling Skies has both an devastated Earth and mind-controlled humans—but what does that correspond to in today's world?
When the Soviet Union fell after the Reagan administration, the new world order didn't offer up any immediately available geopolitical bogeymen for science fiction stories so we got instead stories that expressed our fear of technology (The Terminator Films) or infatuation with it (anything Star Trek).
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