Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Falling Skies S1 Ep3: Prisoner Of War

"It's not war. It's survival."
-tagline to the Battle: Los Angeles (2011) poster-
"There are hundreds of people out there with missing kids.  We rescue those kids, as many as we can - we keep their hope alive.  We give up on those kids - those people are gonna give up hope too."
-Tom Mason to Captain Dan Weaver-

Former teacher Tom Mason and his select group from the Second Massachusetts scope out the whereabouts of their beloved children now harnessed by the alien invaders.  The kids now work tirelessly, mindlessly and drone-like on the top of buildings dismantling metal and scrap like busy worker bees while under the strict watch of Mechs and Skitters.  The effects work of which is outstanding on Falling Skies seamlessly integrated into the new world reality.

As Tom and the group peer out over the top of a neighboring building, Karen Nadler knocks off a loose brick sending the group quickly retreating as a Mech begins unleashing firepower toward the rooftop without hesitation.  The group will return for their own in Falling Skies, Season One, Episode 3, Prisoner Of War.

The group returns to their makeshift base of operations, for now, the John F. Kennedy High School.  The returning group is peppered with questions by worried parents concerned for their missing children.  They are asked to place the details and photos of their children on a cork board in the school.  The concept serves both to aid in identification of their loved ones and as a preservation of their memory and keeping hope alive in the encampment.

A meeting called by Colonel Jim Porter, played by Dale Dye (the former US marine captain appeared in HBO's Band Of Brothers and The Pacific, Casualties Of War, Saving Private Ryan, Outbreak and the genrific Starship Troopers), recognizes other resistance groups have formed in other parts of the country (the good news) and that alien structures like the one looming over Boston are being built in other cities (the bad news).  Dye certainly lends Falling Skies a credible presence.  Troops are ordered to gather munitions and other weapons to help fortify the insurgency as well as gathering intelligence on the aliens.

Tom wishes to save as many harnessed kids as possible against Captain Dan Weaver's wishes.  There have been three recent attempts to remove harnesses from the children.  All have died.  The science team thinks they now have an answer. Porter gives Tom his blessing to rescue just one more child - Ben.  Tom knows the guinea pig is Ben and it's clearly a personal coin toss to keep hope alive as life and death hangs in the balance.

A sweet moment in the school gymnasium between Tom and his son Matt sees Tom assure his son that Ben is going to be okay when the harness is removed.  He wants to give his son hope and believe himself that his son Ben won't die in the process.  The men, particularly Tom, clearly need to be strong leaders for the survivors.

A nice character moment between Uncle Scott and the imprisoned John Pope reveals Pope to be a bit of a chef schooled in the culinary arts.  It also reveals precisely the opposite for Uncle Scott, that he isn't much of one at all.  Scott believes Pope might best be served as the group's resident chief cook and bottle washer.  Colin Cunningham relishes his role on Falling Skies and he does bring a certain energy to his crazed degenerate.  "For the love of God could someone please find me some olive oil."  Pope's a classic and with not much in the way of supplies to work with he still happily accepts his new found position among the ranks. My grandmother would easily refer to Pope as "a real character."  She would say, "Oh, he's a real character alright."

Actor Steven Weber (Wings) guests as Dr. Michael Harris, the man with the alleged solution to removing the harnesses.  Burn them off at their spike insertions.

Weber and Tom discuss how Weber survived the air attacks, scarred but saved by the resistance.  Weber explains how he wishes he could have saved Tom's wife Rebecca.  Tom indicates they tried looking for him after finding Rebecca dead. Clearly Weber was one of the last to see Tom's wife alive, but Tom is clearly suspicious of the events as they transpired. Changing the subject, Weber thinks he can save Tom's boy, Ben.

The mission is a go.  Tom, Hal, Mike Thompson, Dai and Karen Nadler look to find Ben, but instead manage to snag Mike's son Rick. As the group furtively plans its assault Mike jumps into the fray spotting his son and responds with overwhelming emotion, absolutely no control, and two Mechs attack.  One is destroyed with a car bomb while the other corners Hal and Karen while the others escape including Tom wounded by a Mech missile assault.  Now, not only does Tom not have Ben, but his son Hal is now missing as well.

After recovering in one of the endless abandoned buildings Tom strikes out on his own.  Heading down a darkened hall Falling Skies delivers one of those terrifically timed jump-from-your-seat, scared-in-the-dark moments.  Director Greg Beeman times it perfectly as Tom's flashlight fails and he shakes it in the dark only to shine the light upon a Skitter's hideous face up close and personal.  The scene absolutely pops and viewers jump as Tom struggles for his very life.

In the thrilling action sequence Tom employs the very method John Pope described to him in Season One, Episode 2, The Armory shooting out two of the Skitters' legs slowing its attack before finishing it off by bashing it in the head with the butt of his shot gun a la The Walking Dead.  Only Tom doesn't kill the hardly mindless creature.  It's alive and he brings it back to the school alive as a prisoner of war.  Meanwhile Dai and Mike have returned to the school with Rick as well.

"Captain Weaver I brought you a prisoner of war," declares Tom before Weaver.  The moment really spoke to the essence of the episode.  Throughout the episode the focus by viewers was a preoccupation on the human prisoners.  Not for a minute did I see it coming that Tom would return to the high school with a prisoner of war of his own shifting the focus of the episode on both camps.  The third episode angles from both sides of the fight with this revelation and it's one that really worked as an unexpected surprise. Though, and it's far too early now, but it would be interesting in the future if writers managed to give us a more comprehensive perspective from the aliens.  Offering the vantage point of the enemy a la something like director Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boot (1981) always makes for fascinating viewing. Think the perspective of The Others in Lost (2004-2010). Viewers would no doubt welcome the alternative in the future. Weaver wonders how he did it, but Tom, as he has always said, just had to get close enough and a close encounter it was indeed.  Tom heads back out for Hal, Karen and Ben once again, this time - alone!

It's nightfall and back at the site of Rick's abduction, Hal and Karen awaken after being stunned by the Mechs only to have Hal witness Karen's abduction.  Abduction could have been a great title for this one, but Prisoner Of War works beautifully in the framework of a major war in the making.  You can't help but imagine that a series conclusion to Falling Skies could certainly be epic.  If not, there are plenty of options even if budgets keep things on a smaller scale.  Karen is hauled away by harnessed children one of whom is Ben.  Hal attempts to get his bearings as a Mech towers near him shining a blinding light into his eyes.  In an allusion to the atrocities of our own Earth wars, the Mech lines up five of the harnessed children in a firing squad-styled line up.  A Skitter points Hal's attention and focus to the children where he is forced to witness their execution by the Mech droid.  It recalls the worst moments of Vietnam on our own soldiers and Hal screams at the sights of their murder.  The aliens are sending a message.

Prisoner Of War is filled with terrific special effects moments. They are simple, but detailed and beautifully rendered for television seamlessly woven into the gritty action.  I continue to be surprised at the level of quality here.  This is merely complemented by the effective use of sound effects for the Skitters and the Mechs creating an entirely alien environment that is slowly enveloping and impacting humanity - a truly foreign insurgency.  It's truly exceptional.

Inside the high school Harris prepares to cut or burn through Rick's harness. Removing the harness has caused death, but, as barbaric as it is, Harris believes burning through the harness connectors to the child and then supplementing the child with drugs could ween them off a reliance on the device gradually.

There is clearly a combative relationship between Harris and Weaver and Harris is downright antagonistic in character. He's hardly amiable and won't be around forever.

As the harness glows in a throbbing fashion, Harris prepares to burn off the harness.  To do this he must burn through the "needles," vein-like appendages that penetrate the human body and connect the body to the bulk of the harness.  Those needles appear to be feeding the host.  Harris' theory is that the harness synthesizes an opiate-like substance drugging the children.  If you sever the needles you cut off the drug sending the children into a kind of withdrawal that leads to potential shock and then death.  The doctor has Anne Glass affix a morphine drip to bridge the child to safety.  The scene is rather grueling and even grotesque as the alien harness drips a green fluid from its severed needles.  There isn't anything about the scene that makes you feel good or feel like it's going to go well.  And since Tom's son, Ben, was suppose to be the test subject that wouldn't seem to bode well for Mike's son, Rick.

A good deal of alien information is gleaned from the scene offering a hint of alien biology or potential anatomical traits.  Harris further describes how the needles work.  They penetrate the spine in a hardened form.  Once they have entered the human body, they soften and establish roots bonding with a human's central nervous system.  Lovely stuff. The scene suggests a bio-mechanical nature to these creatures and hardened materials with the potential to inevitably become organic working in their favor.  Harris and Glass deduce that the host and the harness, if given enough time fuse together, inevitably becoming one. Ironically, evidence suggests the host becomes a kind of parasite eventually requiring the harness as host or it will die. Often in Earth biology the host to organisms of a parasitic nature are typically much larger. Think tapeworm, fluke and fleas.  The X-Files, Season Two, Episode 2, The Host is a beauty. The reverse is true here in Falling Skies.

Tom finds a near traumatized Hal after seeing the kids murdered by the invaders.  Hal has been essentially left unharmed by the Skitters and the Mechs. Tom suspects its standard from the war playbook.  The aliens leave a survivor to send their message back to the resistance.  Tom analogizes the move to the Nazis during World War II.  They would sometimes leave an allied soldier alive to send a message.  "You're the messenger," believes Tom to Hal.  Tom is certain if they return they must save all of the children or they will die.

Back at camp the Skitter is imprisoned.  Dr. Harris will remain with the Second Massachusetts for a time to study the physiology of the creature or the "conquerors" as he calls them.  Tom is fairly incensed by the remark.  "We're not conquered unless we give up."  The scene much more effectively captures the intimacy of the human struggle that a feature length film like Battle: Los Angeles simply doesn't have the time to do.  In fact, the tagline to the film, "It's not war.  It's survival.," speaks more fittingly to the nature of the conflict in Falling Skies.  It underscores the intimacy of the struggles, while Battle: Los Angeles (2011) is much more a cinematically epic, big scale production equating to war with aliens.  Sure, it's survival, but a series like Falling Skies actually takes time to underscore the nature of what that actually means with each passing step.

Back in the medical room the stumps of the former needle insertions still line Rick's penetrated back.  The hope is they can be removed as he stabilizes.

At the site of the caged Skitter the pompous Harris discusses how some feel that surviving the first wave of the invasion made them the best of the best to a degree.  He doesn't seem to see the nobility of hiding or running.  Tom wonders and even asks if that is how Harris survived.  Running?  Hiding?  Is that why Rebecca was left to die?  Tom presses Harris dubious of his story even knowing he may have ran and left his wife to die.  She was found holding provisions and a duffel bag to heavy for her to handle alone.  It's an uncomfortable moment between Harris and Tom because Harris ran away a coward. How would any of us respond in such a critical moment of life and death?  We certainly hope that we would choose the noble option.  We hope we would find the courage not to skitter and run, but stand our ground to save our fellow human beings.

Harris, in a disgusting display turns the tables and tells Tom he knows that she was supposed to be with Tom that morning and that Rebecca left Tom home to sleep.  He calls Tom just as responsible for his wife's death and a man with a clearly "guilty" conscience after being slugged by Tom. The juxtaposition of the argument between Tom and Harris is interesting as it takes place near the imprisoned alien, the very creature we are supposed to be fighting yet we fight among ourselves.  And we fight among ourselves for all to see including the enemy. Tom tells Harris as he walks away, rather hopefully, "And no matter how each of us survived maybe we owe it to those who didn't to become the best of mankind."

The final moments see a misty-eyed and reflective Tom Mason pin a picture of his son, Ben, to the school cork board before resting next to his two surviving sons, Matt and Hal, who hold one another sleeping. Falling Skies is not afraid to get sentimental now and again and it does it at just the right moments without getting overly sentimental.

The final image sees the Skitter stirring in its cell.  It's eyes open wide as the camera closes in on its face juxtaposed by a close zoom in on Rick's face lying in the medical room.  Rick's eyes open and somehow a kind of psychic connection appears to still be established between Skitter and formerly harnessed child. The questions remain and the potential remains wide open for Falling Skies.

Prisoner Of War: B+. Writer: Fred Golan. Director: Greg Beeman.

Surprisingly, up next, Falling Skies, Season One, Episode 4 and 5, Grace and Silent Kill, respectively, directed by none other than Fred Toye a.k.a. Frederick E. O. Toye, the man behind production and direction on eight episodes of the other series we've been covering here, Fringe, as well as production and an episode on Lost.

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