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Chicken Little Was Right: A Review of Falling Skies

  • Alex Wainer The Contributing Writer
  • 2011 18 Jul
Chicken Little Was Right: A Review of <i>Falling Skies</i>

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). 

It took the real horror of 9/11 to create a new landscape of fear.  Thus, some of the better science fiction onscreen has been television series that imagine disaster's effect on our humanity. Thus both Lost and Battlestar Galactica became the signal narratives of the 21st century. 

In the former, survivors of an airliner crash must make sense of a strange island that challenges what they believe about everything.  They fought each themselves, and the strange Others who could be metaphors for our fears of terrorism or deeper existential threats.

Galactica depicted the survivors of a human culture destroyed by the robots it had created, but who rejected humanity's polytheism for a harsh monotheism, opening the discussion of how do we defend ourselves from an annihilating threat without losing our humanity.  Probably neither series would have existed without the watershed event of 9/11.

In Falling Skies, the near hopeless scenario of human refugees seeking to fight back at their intergalactic aggressors about whom they know practically nothing is balanced by plenty of Spielbergian moments of familial warmth and positive affirmation that in the end, the right must prevail. 

But despite the high production and family values, Falling Skies feels simply too unoriginal and safe for so drastic a scenario, as if the producers are afraid of how harrowing life under these conditions would really be. Ron Moore's re-invention of Battlestar Galactica showed audiences just how human nature would be far more complicated as it faced the existential threat of near-destruction; the pressure of survival brought out the worst and best of human behavior. 

Falling Skies' characters so far haven't brought us perfidy on the level of  Galactica's Gaius Baltar, the human who betrayed the entire human race, and even the show's "good guys" were capable of torture and rigging democratic elections, all in the name of protecting humanity. 

Battlestar Galactica was a far more groundbreaking series than Falling Skies, and I watched every episode of the former, but, so true was its commitment to examining the potential for both good and evil in every heart that I always felt a bit of dread at the start of an episode. 

Perhaps afraid of pursuing the logical result of their own dire premise, Falling Skies invokes no such unease and that is likely to make it more palatable to a wider audience. But it also makes the first episodes feel a little too safe. The 2nd Mass has set up camp at a public school building and is apparently unknown to the alien conquerors a few miles away. 

With their vastly superior technology that made the invasion so brutally fast, surely the aliens can detect all those bodies' heat signatures or movement from space or through some other advanced means. 

Rather than the terror of being both in constant retreat while waging guerilla warfare, the humans seem strangely overlooked. Maybe this disparity will be explained soon, if viewers can stick with it.  But now it comes across as being too assuring and not nearly tense enough.

I will credit the series with a type of character that is too rarely seen in entertainment programming. Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel) is a medical assistant who retains her Christian faith despite the dark conditions. In the episode "Grace," she leads the cast in giving thanks to God for everything they've received from Him and for their connections to each other, "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." 

This was a rare, affecting moment in contemporary television extolling faith in a loving personal God as one of the great values the ragtag human army is hoping to preserve. Otherwise, besides Wyle's Tom Mason, most of the characters are only superficially defined, a shortcoming with a cast so large as this one.

Falling Skies goes where other movies and series (such as both versions of V, many Dr. Who episodes) have gone before and hasn't yet found its resonating chord that would give it the fresh meaning it needs in a very familiar genre. But as a mainstream science fiction family adventure series, it will probably find its audience. 

*This article first published 7/18/2011 

** Falling Skies airs Sundays on TNT