This review contains major spoilers.
1. The Armoury
One of the few exclusives on offer at the recent and surprisingly good Kapow! Comic Con (a round-up of which is currently featured in our Comics section) was the opening episode of Falling Skies, the new sci-fi television series, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, which will be heading to FX in July.
In what immediately casts the series in a very post-Walking Dead light, Falling Skies deals with survival after apocalypse, only instead of the currently trendy zombies, we have the evergreen antagonist of alien invaders. Picking up several months after the near eradication of the human race, the remaining survivors are in hiding, maintaining a semblance of military-style order amongst ruined cities.
Noah Wyle leads as Tom Mason, a man who lost his wife and second son as part of the invasion. Now, he is second-in-command of a small survivor regiment, who are abandoning the city for a new, and hopefully safer, life in the countryside. His position of command comes with great responsibility, having to weigh up personal safety alongside that of his other two sons and the community as a whole.
While aiming for a collision of action-heavy science fiction, guerrilla grit and human drama, Falling Skies confuses itself, pushing forward throughout this opening 42-minute salvo with a disregard for narrative pacing or stylistic coherence. By setting the action after the invasion, the viewer is thrust in medias res, but the stage is set awkwardly.
We learn of the status quo through the narration (and illustration) of Mason’s youngest son, Matt, talking through a series of coloured pencil sketches, which would be a great idea if it weren’t all front-loaded as a pre-credits expository cop-out. Likewise, neither the script nor the direction (the former by series creator and Saving Private Ryan scribe, Robert Rodat) can settle on a suitable tone, flitting between drama and action sequences to often jarring effect.
The aliens are introduced as all-powerful, stalking about the urban landscape in reinforced mech suits, and crossing the skyline in huge bomber aircraft. All the humans can do is remain hidden in the rubble, or die.
While deeply reminiscent of such future-shocks as Terminator Salvation (especially in its drab cinematography), it’s a tried and tested set-up, full of fear and vulnerability. But the series can’t hold out for more than an episode before revealing that all these extraterrestrial bastards need is a shotgun blast to the head, or a bit of C4 up the backside. Accompanied by a gung-ho quip, obviously.
This sense of itchy feet pervades the episode, as it seems Rodat can’t wait to get along with the story. Either that, or he can’t subtly develop subtext, or even our initial impressions of the characters, as it is so repeatedly stressed that Mason, despite his ranking, has no combat experience. Instead, he is a military history academic, much to the chagrin of his army veteran commanding officer. Consecutive scenes resound with the lines “Ease up on the history lessons, professor” and “Ever the history professor”, while Wyle desperately tries to inject character into Mason’s incessant citations of battles past.
However, even that isn’t as bad as the strong streak of sentimentalism, which manifests throughout the episode in explicitly poignant moments of reflection, or the sort of sugary emotional material that Spielberg has been peddling for some time. Mason strains under the weight of being a single father in this terrible context, which is especially seen in his relationship with ultra-cute, but probably traumatised Matt.
The Mason trio, completed by the cocky, but good-hearted Hal, are deeply affected by the loss of their two family members. It is revealed that the aliens kill adults, but enslave children, so there is still hope that middle son, Ben, may still be out there.
In another series, this would be a season arc, developing tension and character motivation over time. But, no. At the end of this first episode, they find him, under the alien yoke. However, first, Mason has to fulfil his duty to the community by transporting them to safety, and planning, in his (unintentionally hilarious) words, to “Retreat, regroup, return, revenge.”
It’s surprisingly refreshing to see a series react against the glacial, graceful pacing of the best of television’s current crop, but this is laughable. Within the first episode of Falling Skies, so many plot points, suitable for exploration or development, have been raised, rejected and resolved. Who knows where it will go next. I’m certainly not willing to find out.
Falling Skies debuts on FX in July.
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