Warner Bros. // 2011 // 528 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power // July 29th, 2012
We're not just fighting for our lives. We're fighting for our existence.
Recent years have seen a lot of Hollywood big boys dipping their toes into the cable TV pool; Martin Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire hit big on HBO, and Frank Darabont really hit huge with The Walking Dead. Steven Spielberg has had a few high profile series, though genre television has largely been a miss for Hollywood's home run king. Enter Falling Skies, produced by Spielberg and created by Saving Private Ryan screenwriter Robert Rodat, does this post apocalyptic sci-fi series manage to rise above past efforts like Taken? Or is this another dud just waiting to fade.
"I was in school when the ships came. They were really big, and they said that we weren't gonna attack them with the nuclear bombs because they might'a wanted to be friends. But they didn't want to be friends. Not at all. And then there was a bright light that makes, like, all electronics stop working. Computers. Radios. Satellites. Cars. TVs. Everything. They blew up army bases, ships, the Navy, submarines, and all the soldiers are gone. Now moms and dads have to fight. After that, they blew up all the capitals. New York, Washington D.C., Paris. All the major cities. Then they came. There were millions of them..." -- Opening Narration, Episode 1
I wasn't entirely sure what to make of Falling Skies initially. Early word of mouth had it pegged as some kind of bastardized cable cash in offspring fueled by the success of ABC's V reboot (Though I use the term 'success' lightly) and the runaway hit that is The Walking Dead. Another hopeless rag tag force of survivors struggling from minute to minute in the early days following the end of the world, only rather than shambling undead, we're dealing with hostile alien invaders with enslavement on their minds. Potent enough fodder, I guess. Imagine my surprise when I fired up the first few episodes and found myself rather engaged, nay, hooked.
Sure, at first glance, Falling Skies is a hodge podge of cribbed concepts from Battlestar Galactica to The Terminator, with a sense of design deja vu in everything from the worn rugged soldiers and their patchwork uniforms to the trash strewn streets and skittering aliens. Where the show really succeeds is in the writing and in the casting. E.R.'s Noah Wyle makes for a charismatic lead with his portrayal of American History Prof turned Soldier Tom Mason, and while the "missing or abducted son" subplot plays out more like an artificial TV trope, he's a decidedly focused character who doesn't fall into the usual "Dad on a mission" traps. I love that there's an added layer of unpredictability to his character, you never really entirely know which side of the soldier-civilian schism he's going to come down on in a given episode. Will Patton (Armageddon) gets a more thankless role as Captain Weaver, commanding officer of the soldiers who provide protection to the refugee civilians. He's you're standard "dumb Commander," but Patton sells it rather well. The supporting cast is universally strong as well, with a few rather surprising turns that defy the typical nature of this sort of series. Highlights for me include Moon Bloodgood's (Terminator Salvation) Civilian Doctor, Drew Roy (Secretariat) as Tom Mason's intelligent, well mannered son, and Colin Cunningham (Afghan Luke) as the clever renegade, Pope.
As good as the performances are, they're kept afloat by scripts that really hammer home the human factor of the show. Falling Skies really excels at capturing the human element of the characters and their situation. Simple moments swell with Spielbergian touches that endear themselves to all but the most analytical or jaded viewers, and while some might consider these beats too wistful or cloying, it just pulls me in deeper. There's a lot of emotion on display here. This isn't just an action series, but there's plenty of that on display as well.
Which leads me to the direction; Falling Skies, while falling rather short of HBO-fueled brilliance like The Pacific or Band of Brothers, is definitely worthy of Spielberg's name. The action sequences are handled with flair and skill, and the effects, while dodgy on occasion, generally mix quite well, and keep things exciting. The feel of the show is certainly familiar, but it's handled as good as or better than any other similar show.
While the Blu-ray picture and sound treatment isn't exemplary (see below), the slate of extras on hand is a great offering. Featurettes cover the making of Season One, and commentary tracks on half the episodes are of fine quality. The look at the Dark Horse comic book is throwaway stuff, but the Comic-Con panel (from 2011) and the sneak peek at season two are both worth a look-see.
Warner's Blu-ray treatment isn't as cut and dried as the show itself. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is murky at times, exacerbated by the low contrast "seas of gray" look that the show pushes forth. Night time scenes lack any significant black levels, but that's likely more due to the nature of filming for television. Overall, it looks pretty good, and there's definitely an uptick in quality from your average HD broadcast, but it's not quite the visual stunner that it could be. Audio is similarly affected. It's not a bad mix, but it doesn't quite carry itself with any force either. Gunshots are low and muffled, directional effects are subtle, and music is primarily front mixed with the dialogue.
Sure, Falling Skies feels more like an amalgamation of ideas from Sci-Fi's past than anything truly original, but it's a smart, well executed, and well acted amalgamation that hits all the right notes, and makes very few missteps. Warner's Blu-ray is a solid, if middling effort with a healthy smattering of good extras. While I won't say that Falling Skies is a better written or better executed show than The Walking Dead, I will say I like these characters a hell of a lot more, I get more enjoyment out of the show itself, and the comparison is definitely a fair one.
Review content copyright © 2012 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 528 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Comic-Con Panel
* Sneak Preview
* Official Site