"We don't have to kill them all. We just gotta kill enough of them. If we can make it too costly, too painful for them to stay then they'll leave. They're wolves. We gotta be porcupines. If we can hurt 'em they'll leave. History is full of inferior forces creating so much trouble that the invading army leaves."
-Tom Mason drawing parallels of the human survivors of an alien apocalypse to the smallest of forces against vast armies in world history-
I've been pondering Falling Skies lately. Maybe it's the time of year and all of the snow. I had been eyeing a purchase of that first season Blu-Ray. As of this writing, that purchase has since happened and it looks rather exceptional by the way. I've seen episodes of both seasons one and two without, but I've hardly been a zealot for the series. Combined, there are just twenty (20) episodes in all. Unfortunately, I've missed a good number of them.
Upon seeking the first season purchase, I was surprised to see no sign of a Falling Skies Season Two Blu-Ray. If all is going according to plan Season Three should be slated for summer 2013. That second season can't be far away unless the producers are hoping to use it as a promotional tool for the new season.
Falling Skies debuted in June 2011, with a production stamp by Steven Spielberg himself, to nearly 6 million viewers. The debut, Falling Skies, Season One, Episode 1, Live And Learn, was directed by none other than Carl Franklin and written by Robert Rodat.
Rodat has a flair for the war drama having penned the screenplays to Steven Spielberg's award-winning Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Roland Emmerich's The Patriot (2000). Given the nature of the ground war, Falling Skies falls very much within Rodat's wheelhouse and captures the spirit of the fight of both films.
Franklin is known best to many as both an actor [The Fantastic Journey] and as a director [One False Move, Out Of Time]. As an actor he registered in the 1970s classic The Fantastic Journey for ten episodes. He appeared in an episode of genre favorite The Incredible Hulk often spotlighted here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic. His face graced The Rockford Files (1978) and The A-Team (1983-1985) for sixteen episodes and more. He made a mighty leap (no small feat) quite successfully to the world of direction and made some of my favorite genre films in One False Move (1992) with Bill Paxton, High Crimes (2002) with Morgan Freeman and Out Of Time (2003) with Denzel Washington. The indie-like One False Move is a gritty crime drama that plays lethal and deadly real. The infinitely entertaining if a little implausible Out Of Time and High Crimes are the works of a director with a firm hand and eye for drama behind the camera. You can't go wrong.
Since then Franklin has entered the world of television direction as well delivering big for the HBO series Rome (2007) and The Pacific (2010), the war-time follow-up to Band Of Brothers. A year later he would deliver the Pilot for Falling Skies (2011). It arrived with some fanfare heralded with the cliched banner of best new science fiction series. Apparently they weren't watching Fringe. Ironically, Anna Torv who plays Agent Olivia Dunham on Fringe also appeared in The Pacific. Another irony, both Fringe and Falling Skies centered on Massachusetts terrain. Apparently aliens and life threatening alternate universes don't take kindly to Massachusetts' liberals. Who knew? All joking aside, I decided it was time to live and learn myself. I wanted to give Falling Skies a proper look free of commercial distractions. It's far more effective for me to watch science fiction and blog about it free of commercials. Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic knows no other way, which is why I probably don't care a lick if I don't watch faithfully until it reaches Blu-Ray and DVD.
With such an impressive pedigree what did I learn about Falling Skies? Live And Learn establishes Falling Skies post-alien apocalypse rather effectively. That reality promises for at least one or more intriguing flashback possibilities far down the road.
The series begins powerfully with a stirring set of images narrated by the voice of a child. Crayon drawings of children traumatized by the events that led to the current living conditions of survivors captures the nature of the enemy and the state of humanity's existence. Ships came. Nuclear bombs were avoided in the event the aliens came in peace. They didn't come in peace. (Do you remember I Come In Peace (1990) starring Dolph Lundgren?) A bright light signalled the use of an electro-magnetic pulse weapon that wiped out the electrical grid required to function. Armies and soldiers were exterminated. Major urban and metropolitan centers were levelled. Humankind has been reduced to factions of guerrilla-styled warriors comprised of civilians and military, like the residents of Jericho, but reduced not by nuclear war, but rather an all-out alien invasion. Moms and Dads and even children now take up arms against Skitters and Mechs. Alien invasion became alien abduction as children were captured and attached with "harness things." to control them though little more is known about them.
The tear-filled opening is pure Spielbergian drama and it is an effective and beautiful set up to a considerably dark series, both cinematographically and sometimes in mood and tone.
A young boy talks of his Dad, Tom Mason, and brother, Hal Mason, being safe as of the morning but doesn't know about now suggesting everything changes in a New York minute, or in this case a Boston minute. That's the new world for these survivors. Day to day, hour to hour they are fighting to survive like Holocaust survivors of a cold oppressive assault on humanity by evil. There's even a Defiance-styled (2008) instinct to these men and women who struggle, strike, retreat and survive. The enemy is relentless, powerful and the survivors live seeking sustenance and safety.
The scene cuts from Tom's youngest son, Matt, to Tom and his son Hal, and the resistance attempting to gather food and fuel but under attack by the alien Mechs in a thrilling, positively brutal opening sequence reminiscent of the underground resistance in James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) film and other classics including Spielberg's own War Of The Worlds (2005) and even Battle: Los Angeles (2011), which pre-dated this series by just a matter of a few months. While not quite the Black Hawk Down (2001) approach or experience to its alien ground conflict as Battle: Los Angeles, Falling Skies' Jericho-styled approach is more than thrilling enough. Live And Learn spares no expense on creating the impression this is a life and death ordeal. This Franklin premiere does justice to placing us in the action and giving us a thrilling sense of this new reality.
Sound effects, an accompanying score and alien laser-scoped weaponry give the proceedings an ominous and grim vibe that makes it a truly gripping science fiction experience. Seeing it again on Blu-Ray offered me a new look at the series.
Very early on we get our first glimpse of the Skitters. The visual effects for serialized television are truly a delight. For whatever reason, there's an almost stop motion look to them that harkens back to the very best of Ray Harryhausen at least that is how I received them. I'm not sure it's intentional, but I offer that comparison in the most complimentary fashion.
The sound of alien ships seemingly pain the human ear as they soar overhead. One vessel fires a mysterious photon-torpedo like weapon that creates a bright light, a giant electrical-like cloud followed by a strong breeze after impact. There are details like this that really complement the strength of the appeal and look of Falling Skies for genre aficionados.
The opening credits title sequence reveals the title, FALLING SKIES, amidst digital disruption and images that are scrambled slightly underscoring the electrical disruption by striking invaders.
Barrels of flame, candles and battery-operated lamps generate light for the survivors at night in makeshift safe houses somehow obscured and hidden away from the grasp of invaders. Hands down, Spielberg's Falling Skies is much better than George Lucas' Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
These areas are falling prey to Skitter aerial sensors capable of picking up pockets of 500-600 humans. Like that ugly period of human history during World War II where men and women were rounded up to the fantastical sequences of Spielberg's War Of The Worlds, these survivors are on the verge of being slaughtered by the invasion. They must leave the area and break up into bands of 300 comprised of 100 fighters and 200 civilians, reminiscent of the likes of Sparta and the Battle of Thermopylae. It was the Spartans versus Xerxes invading Persian armies only these army hordes are from outer space while the Spartans are a contemporary human band of regulars led by a humble but strong-willed and intelligent professor of military history in Tom Mason.
Tom is less than enthused about leaving the outskirts of the city area. Harnessed kids are missing including one of Tom's three sons, Ben. Colonel Jim Porter separates the groups in earnest. The Second Massachusetts is given to Captain Dan Weaver, played by Will Patton. The unit is also in the care of Professor Tom Mason, played by Noah Wyle, as Weaver's second-in-command. Porter suggests running, hiding and surviving as the only option until they figure out how to kill these things. Weaver prefers to stay and fight before motherships return. Mason, too, is concerned about leaving his missing son Ben behind. All that is known about the enemy is that will die, but you have to "get close."
Porter reveals two kids were lost in an effort to remove alien harnesses. It is clear the survivors know little of their enemy and their harnesses at this point - in essence, living and learning.
Despite Tom's reservations about Weaver whom he clearly defers to, but with whom he shares a strained relationship of mutual cooperation, he does concede to Porter he worries for the civilians. Porter understands Mason is the right guy with the right frame of mind as second-in-command to protect the civilian ranks.
A terrific shot of an alien mothership lights the night skies just sitting there receiving and sending alien vessels like fireflies in the night. It's a beautifully shot moment as a symbol of the alien power center. It is in effect, the capital of the alien invasion. Mason looks to the massive vessel and attempts to shed history on their own circumstances as a way of offering his company hope. He suggests the story of the Trojan Horse as a way to get inside that ship and somehow destroy it. He refers to the the wooden horse of the Trojan War used as subterfuge by the Greeks to enter the city of Troy and destroy them. The exterior of the spaceship is likely equally impenetrable requiring smarts. Some of the men joke with Tom, but it's clear he's a respected and well-regarded every man as they call him "Professor Kick Ass" in jest.
There's a terrific moment where Weaver and Mason's group are prepping to leave. Mason peruses a pile of books and magazines. He tosses a People-like magazine into the scrap heap where publications like that belong. It's a great social commentary on the decay of their world and of our own. Instead, Mason is torn between Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1870) and Charles Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities (1859). Due to weight issues he can only choose one. It's a tough call too, but he goes with the lighter A Tale Of Two Cities which in some ways echoes the new world of Falling Skies for him. Tom's existence and those he attempts to lift up parallels the plight of the peasantry by and the atrocious social conditions in London and Paris circa the French Revolution as depicted in Dickens' novel. Clearly a true professor, but Verne's classic would have been in my hand when I walked away.
The band of travellers moves en masse in daylight. Anne Glass, played by Moon Bloodgood, is one of the medics for the group, formerly a pediatrician, she wonders what will be left in four hundred years. Tom smiles, "hopefully humans." They walk up the hill as the ship sits in the backdrop marking its place on Earth buzzed by ships like little hornets.
Genre fans must be thankful for the sheer variety of television. Just when you tire of survivors battling zombies at every turn over at The Walking Dead you can find relief with survivors battling aliens. You have to love the options.
Despite tensions between Weaver and Mason, Mason always looks him straight in the eye with steely intent. It's clear Weaver doesn't exactly believe in Mason as a military leader nor should he, but he should have faith in his fellow man given the circumstances.
Mason recruits a group to go back for supplies including his son Hal, Dai and a girl named Karen Nadler. Hal and Tom split into two groups. Hal finds the irony in the fact Tom wouldn't let him ride his bike to a friend's house at night just months earlier. "Things change," says Tom. He also assures, "Some things don't," referring to a father's love for his son and Hal intuitively understands his father still expects a hug goodbye. Karen and Hal head off on dirt bikes, hardly the quietest or stealthiest of tactics.
Shortly after a moment of reflection by Tom who finds a dead teenager with a forcibly detached alien harness, the action shifts to his son Hal by a river bank in an exquisitely framed and shot sequence that really captures the danger and suspense of the moment. The march of Mechs approach as Hal hides snug against the dirt of a trench to avoid detection as ships fly over head. Two large metallic Mechs with glowing eyes and bent, dog-like legs march in stride with a group of children harnessed following like zombies. One of the boys is Ben, Hal's brother. The children show no signs of life. They appear in a trance. Hal is wise not to bring attention to himself. He would surely be harnessed or killed.
Ben informs his father he is intent on going back, but Tom throws caution to the wind realizing the numbers are too great to try and tackle with such a small group and he must force his son to heed his advice.
Once again, Tom offers the wisdom. Inferior forces have been victorious over great odds against great forces. The Americans and the British and the Revolutionary war. The Scottish against the British. You could point to the Afgans and the Russians. "Red Sox Yankees '04." It certainly felt that way as a Red Sox fan. So now we have Falling Skies and Lost, Season Three, referencing our underdog Red Sox. Nice to see them getting a little love.
A rousing sequence sees the band of fighters tackle a single Skitter in a tense, sterling Franklin execution inside a grocery warehouse. A not-so-thorough search fails to reveals a Skitter on the loose. Attack by the Skitter and the ensuing gunfire alerts a Mech who enters the melee. The Mechs reveal themselves to be very well-equipped technologically like the famous Predator. Tom is able to destroy the Mech with C4 and the Skitter is mortally wounded. The seven men and women surround the creature as it fades away writhing in pain. Something in its eyes suggest a creature that warrants sympathy. Its expressive face appears to suggest a kind of fear of its own. The creators do a nice job of presenting some emotion in these creatures reminiscent of the exquisite prawns from District 9 (2009). The men and women appear to observe the creature with curiosity, but watch it die and fade. It's a solid moment in Live And Learn and will be worth returning to one day.
The group is successful in its mission bringing back more supplies than the survivors have seen in days. These survivors battle aliens for the essential while Rick Grimes and his group battle zombies for their goods over at The Walking Dead (2010-present). Weaver puts up a tough old exterior and gives Tom little credit for his small victory. He tells Weaver, "They die just like us. You just have to get close."
As Tom celebrates his son Matt's birthday he's about to inform him he doesn't have a gift until Hal covers for him handing him a gift, a ripstick, and telling Matt it's from Dad. Very touching. Falling Skies holds a good deal of hope and optimism amidst all of the sadness and that's fine by me. The heavy times are met with moments of simple joys by the kids and the sweeping orchestral score does heighten the emotion, but like I said, I'm a bit of a softy so a little levity is always nice in series that depict hard apocalyptic times. The premiere ends with a terrific shot of the Second Massachusetts exiting the area with the hub of the alien invasion behind them in the distance. Plenty to enjoy ahead.
I remember when the Pilot for Falling Skies was going to air. I was definitely thrilled by the possibilities. Steven Spielberg's name was attached, not that that's ever any guarantee - just ask the cancelled Terra Nova. As I said, it revealed itself to be a kind of human resistance, Jericho-style, fighting underground against a Battle: Los Angeles type invasion. Falling Skies would offer the character quality drama of Jericho infused with the gritty action combat of the latter.
As the series moved along in fits and starts I found myself intrigued but not necessarily wowed. Kenneth Brown at Blu-Ray.com captured the experience in a simple summation. "Falling skies needs a lot of work. The cast is talented, the practical and the visual effects impress, and the story is loaded with potential... so why does everything fall so flat?" That's not an unfair take away, because I often found myself with a similar conclusion. I submit that I have not followed it closely. Sometimes the excitement was completely enthralling. Other times the character drama came off less than involving.
The Second Massachusetts cleverly taps into the spirit of '76 and the idea of the American Revolution casting away those foreign invaders - the British. With the human population heavily routed by aliens survival and ultimately freedom from the aliens is central to the story.
Franklin knows how to direct dark and gritty and Falling Skies' debut does a splendid job of immersing us into this new world. The special effects are seamlessly woven into the new reality of life on Earth giving the series a real earthy credibility.
It's not surprising Spielberg's hand guides the spirit of Falling Skies. His veil always looms large from the aliens to the bands of human survivors. If you've seen the positively terrifying PG-13 film remake of War Of The Worlds  you'll feel the energy of that film in Falling Skies to a degree. It's creepy and unsettling at times like that film. War Of The Worlds is truly one of the scariest PG-13 pictures I think I've ever seen.
Falling Skies leads with a kind of anti-hero in Tom Mason, played by Noah Wyle. He's not a conventional hero being a former professor at a university of military history. He does a splendid job of informing the troops of history, while, in essence, serving to offer the troops hope as noted earlier. There chances seem slim, but Mason is there to remind them there is hope and they have as good a chance as any in history.
Live And Learn doesn't break far from convention. It offers a survivor series facing terrible odds amidst a gritty science fiction invasion. The introduction strikes a steady balance between the dramatic character moments and the action. There is a window into those moments that feels real and sincere. Terra Nova had a terrible problem in this way often feeling ever so slightly cheesy. Falling Skies is much more successful in striking a nice balance. The hope from here is that the series gets better breaking from convention and offering some cool and startling revelations.
There's no shortage of incredibly good visual effects or matte shots of an alien ship looming in the sky reminiscent of that incredible image of the ship over Johannesburg in District 9. Wonderful visionary stuff there and it looks remarkably good here. All of the trappings and table setting suggest the makings of a truly exceptional series.
In general, Season Two demonstrated improvements building on the first season. It was building toward some special for science fiction fans. Story elements and plot complexity moved to a point where things started getting interesting and that final episode of the second season, A More Perfect Union, was a rousing finale with an incredibly unforgettable final image.
As of this writing I'm relatively excited about Falling Skies Season Three when it returns, more so than the recent return of The Walking Dead. I suppose the real question is, will Falling Skies really start to soar for me? Will the output meet expectations? With ten episode seasons showing up between June and August every year that's an awful long wait. The cinematic approach and the effects efforts no doubt require the work. I'd rather a terrific finished product than a rushed one. But, both seasons barely combine for a single season so at this point I'm looking for a little growth in the writing department.
Until then, I'm purchasing Falling Skies in the hopes of bolstering support for future seasons. The voice of Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein over at Guardians Of The Genre makes an awfully fine point that continues to echo in my mind. I'm paraphrasing, but 'If we want to see more science fiction than we need to support that science fiction.' I can't say that I feel that strongly about everything released and Doc is an avid supporter of the good, the bad and the great in science fiction. I commend him and not that he follows blindly. He breaks them down fairly. I'm just not always there or on board. I missed Fringe. I missed Firefly. Sorry about that. I marginally supported Falling Skies, but if there is any series currently on television teetering in viewership that I think really deserves the support in the hopes it will continue to improve and grow stronger and more complex, it's Falling Skies.
It's hard to tell what will become of Falling Skies, but a little time goes a long way for some of these programs. Look at Fringe (2008-2013). Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) is another that comes to mind. Those first two years were rough going. Falling Skies is a work in progress. It's time to make a stand on its behalf viewers.
The series first season had its fair share of criticism. Even Guardians Of The Genre referred to lead character Tom Mason as "dull" in the early going and the anchor of your series doesn't exactly keep the proceedings popping, but Wyle plays the part dramatically real. Doc notes the strength of the series "world-building" mythology. For now, Falling Skies approaches its story in a manner best-suited for television. Character drama is set amidst an alien invasion and handled on a smaller, more intimate scale. Certainly there are moments of epic scale, but Falling Skies wisely keeps things controlled. As Doc correctly notes, Falling Skies will rise and fall on its characters and it certainly demonstrates potential in general in this area with some room for improvement.
The Amazon writers always have some fun remarks. Here are some of the best comments. Falling Skies should be "Falling Asleep." K. Harris called it a "solid, if familiar, sci-fi survivor story that needs to heighten its action and human drama for season two." This speaks to why the series has often felt a little flat never quite getting the tone in either arena just right. C.B. Deuter wrote that it was a series "that aims to please everybody and instead pleases nobody." One person dubbed it "soap opera sci-fi." These are some of the harshest criticisms. More people endorsed it than not and Falling Skies is much better than that. You can see the problems with Falling Skies concerning archetypes, stereotyping and generally flat character drama that lifts in fits and starts through the first season. Falling Skies needs to be better. Live An Learn is a very solid start. The creative team creates empathy in the viewers making us genuine alien sympathizers.
But going back to Blu-Ray.com which I generally like a lot and have a good deal of respect for when it comes to its writers, they were hard on Falling Skies. Kenneth Brown called it "derivative" and alluded to it as some kind of Battlestar Galactica, Terra Nova, The Walking Dead offspring. He notes it better than V (2009), better than Terra Nova, but not even in the same league with The Walking Dead or Battlestar Galactica. I understand the comparisons and in the beginning Falling Skies isn't pushing any boundaries, but with time it just might. It's early. Kenneth Brown isn't wrong when he points to Falling Skies inability to remain consistent. Great ideas and concepts, even strong visual effects are often hampered by a stumble or two that seems to halt momentum. Brown sees all of the potential, but feels the misses come in these mighty waves and "the hits are few and far between."
When Season Two of Falling Skies ended it had almost four million viewers. Something tells me Despite the drop in viewing figures from Season One, I'm optimistic about Falling Skies on an upswing. It's a gut feeling I know. I'm also hopeful SyFy's new series Defiance, debuting in April, won't upset my prediction as much as I'm encouraged about that new series.
A colleague of mine and I spoke of Falling Skies just the other day, which was really part of the inspiration for this post. He complained about the second season of The Walking Dead, but he really likes Falling Skies. I paused and thought for a moment, "You know, yeah, I like it too." We expounded about it a bit. I told him Falling Skies has a very gradual, slow build for me. It's growing on me and it promises new things. I'm very much anticipating its arrival again. It has spaceships. It has some terrific aliens. It appears open to revealing new species and new ideas. Hell, why am I not completely on board? Sincerely I do feel Falling Skies is arcing upward rather than down and I'm very optimistic about that series going forward. I want it to succeed and I think it's really done a nice job fleshing out a plan and a mytharc in just twenty episodes - the equivalent of a single season. I believe Falling Skies will continue to soar. I don't think the sky is falling on this one and I'm really rooting for it.
Live And Learn succeeds as a taster of things to come and also a portrait of the atmosphere and approach taken for Season One. While certainly a down and dirty, gritty-looking pilot entry for the franchise, Live And Learn may not be as good as the sum of some incredible parts, but it's a damn sight finer than most television. These survivors don't sparkle in performance like the survivors of Lost, nor does the Pilot thrill in the same riveting fashion as the premiere for J.J.Abrams' Lost, but like survivors surviving this genre starter gets the job done sweat, grime and elbow grease. For those who like their alien apocalypse in the form of a David and Goliath-styled yarn with heaping amounts of human drama and bursts of alien combat, look no further, Falling Skies shows a lot of promise. It's the characters, alien intrigue and situational drama that should keep this one riding high. Live And Learn demonstrates Falling Skies is a worthy entry within the genre, but beyond the stuff of fan boy dreams, of which this is entirely, the creators may still have some living and learning to do concerning where this series goes. A broader audience would be nice, but as long as it's given time to develop Falling Skies could turn out to be something special and a little more challenging even to fans like myself.
Live And Learn: B+.
Writer: Robert Rodat. Director: Carl Franklin.
Falling Skies Cast:
Noah Wyle (Tom Mason)/ Will Patton (Captain Dan Weaver)/ Moon Bloodgood (Anne Glass)/ Drew Roy (Hal Mason)/ Connor Jessup (Ben Mason)/ Maxim Knight (Matt Mason)/ Colin Cunningham (John Pope)/ Sarah Carter (Margaret)/ Mpho Koaho (Anthony)/ Seychelle Gabriel (Lourdes)/ Jessy Schram (Karen Nadler)/ Peter Shinkoda (Dai)