We've seen the first seven hours of Steven Spielberg's new alien-occupation show Falling Skies, airing this summer. And the good news is, this could be one of the most thought-provoking and intense stories about alien invasion you've ever seen.
The bad news is, Falling Skies gets off to kind of a rocky start in its first couple of episodes, but then it does pick up dramatically later on. Here's our spoiler-free preview.
Very few creators have attempted to tell the story of life after an alien invasion — not immediately after, but six months after, in the case of Falling Skies. And it's a brilliant conceit, allowing the show to explore a lot of post-apocalyptic themes about survival after a disaster, and how desperate circumstances bring out the best and worst in people. It's sort of similar to Day of the Triffids, in all its various incarnations, and also sometimes quite reminiscent of Jericho.
The other thing that's unique and clever about Falling Skies is its alien occupying force, who are just weird enough and creepy enough to keep being fascinating as we get to know them better. (The actual creature design of the aliens isn't that original, but you stop minding that after a while.) And without giving too much away, the aliens want to take our children alive — and they have a complicated relationship with the children they take prisoner. (You might be slightly reminded of Torchwood: Children of Earth, although it's not really the same.)
In Falling Skies, just like Jericho and most versions of Triffids, we're following a small community that's struggling to survive. This time around, it's a small unit of the human Resistance, who are honestly outclassed and out of their depth trying to fight back against the aliens. As you've probably seen from the trailers, the aliens already launched an EMP weapon that fried our electronics, killed our military and trashed our cities. So we're left with an ill-equipped, amateur army skulking around the countryside and trying to protect hundreds of civilians. (Similar to Battlestar Galactica's civilian fleet, the Resistance has a ton of civilians tagging along.)
So this isn't a wide-screen war drama, in which we really get a sense of how the war as a whole is going — although we're pretty sure it's not going well. Rather, it's a small character-based drama in which we see the occupation through the eyes of Tom Mason and his family, plus a handful of other characters. Tom (Noah Wyle) is a former history professor who's become an unlikely Resistance leader, and he has three sons. Other supporting characters include Captain Weaver, who's basically Saul Tigh with a ponytail, and Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) who's a pediatrician forced to become an all-purpose doctor. And there are a handful of other memorable characters, including one guy who seems to be trying to be the Sawyer of the group but is way too repulsive.
We've all seen tons of shows where the first couple of episodes are kind of an ungainly mess, and then the show "clicks" and starts to find its groove. And Falling Skies seems to be one of those — the opening two-hour episode is clunky and annoying, and tries to do a lot of stuff that clearly doesn't work. And then the show gets a lot better in the following episodes, and continues to improve up through episodes five and six, which are a two-parter. There are a lot of questionable decisions in the pilot, including spending too much time on battle scenes that look unconvincing and feature some bad CG effects.
(By the way, the two-hour pilot is just two random episodes smushed together. I think they were even filmed a year apart. But neither of them is quite up to the standard the show later achieves.)
But mostly, the characters aren't quite clicking in the first couple hours. Like Tom Mason — if you take a drink every time he quotes a lesson from history or someone mentions he used to be a history professor, you'll be drunk half an hour in. Seriously, there are like ten scenes where he says, "Ah yes. This reminds me of the Peloponnesian war" and someone else says, "Ever the history professor, Tom." We get it — he's a history professor. Also, Wyle really seems to be struggling to find Tom Mason's character in those first few hours, and has some scenes where he's not quite selling the emotions that Tom is going through. Similarly, Moon Bloodgood's character improves a lot after the first couple hours. And there's one character who literally does nothing but pray or talk about Jesus for the first few hours, who gets slightly less one-note later as well.
So this is one of those things where you'll have to bear with the show a bit. There are enough fun or cool moments in the two-hour pilot to make it fun viewing — and just keep in mind, it does get way better.
By the time I finished the seventh hour of Falling Skies, I was fully hooked — and I was up way past my bedtime, because I didn't want to stop watching. The characters are starting to feel a bit more human and believable, and the show starts letting them breathe and have space to develop slightly more complex relationships. There are more quiet moments where the characters actually get to live with the emotions. And they stop feeling quite so defined by their current or former jobs. In particular, Bloodgood gets a nice arc, where she has to get tougher and do stuff she didn't think she'd be capable of.
And the show manages to be genuinely suspenseful, in the way the best thrillers are. You know that thing where someone makes a decision, and you're like "Don't do that, it's a trap"? There are a lot of moments like that in Falling Skies, and the good news is, the show keeps surprising you. The aliens and their killer robots become more like horror monsters that could jump out and kill you at any moment, and there's less of an attempt at making a big-budget war movie on a low budget. The show keeps you guessing and waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. (And yes, some of the horrible things are done by humans.)
And there are a few genuinely awesome moments of alien-fighting, that earn a place in the "humans kicking ET's ass" hall of fame.
Finally, the mystery of just what these aliens are, and what they really want, becomes way more absorbing the longer you watch. Can we communicate with the aliens? Do they have any weaknesses? What do they think of us? Why are they so interested in our kids? And what does it mean for children to be living with the aliens for months at a time? The truth about the aliens, and their relationship with the kids they take, isn't as simple as you first believe. The show's creepiest moments come when we learn more about the aliens, and discover more about their custodianship of the children.
The show still isn't perfect even in the later episodes — a few of the characters stay annoying, and some of the more "heart-warming" Hallmark Channel moments get a bit too treacly. But the show's basic storytelling becomes rock solid, and there are plenty of characters that you do start rooting for and caring about. By the midpoint of the first season, this show is well on its way to becoming an addictive blend of Jericho's post-apocalyptic family drama and The X-Files' creepy alien paranoia. Definitely worth checking out.