Judge Gordon Sullivan thinks Chicken Little was right.
Our reviews of Falling Skies: The Complete First Season (published July 17th, 2012) and Falling Skies: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published July 29th, 2012) are also available.
We're not just fighting for our lives. We're fighting for our existence.
Everybody seems to love a good us-versus-them narrative. Look no further than the rise of mass publishing a little over a century ago, and you'll see a field littered with white dudes fighting the savage Indians, the primitive African, or the Asian menace. Now that the world has grown smaller and a bit more tolerant, it's difficult to find enemies that appeal to every demographic. That's probably one reason why Nazis are such a huge part of popular culture: With the exception of a fringe white supremacist contingent no one is going to be against violence done to Nazis. This probably also explains the rise of alien conspiracy stories in popular media as well. Every few years since the '70s at least we get a new show that pits humanity against some terrible alien foe. Sometimes they have a bit of a message (think the revamped Battlestar Galactica) and sometimes they're just trying to be good fun. Falling Skies falls into the latter camp. Season Two offers some exciting moments, but doesn't feel all that substantial.
Facts of the Case
The basic plot of Falling Skies is that aliens have invaded earth for reasons unknown. After taking out our technology, they're rounding up children and outfitting them with a "harness" that turns them into zombie slaves. The story itself centers around a professor of military history, Tom (Noah Wylie, E.R.) and a retired military captain, Weaver (Will Patton, The Mothman Prophecies), who lead the 2nd Massachusetts, a resistance cell. At the end of the first season, Tom was offered a parlay with the aliens; he would discuss why humans wanted to resist, and they offered a chance to save his son in return. Season Two picks up three months after Tom's fateful decision; the rest of the season follows the 2nd Mass as they continue to resist while Tom struggles with what might have been done to him while he was being held by the aliens. All ten of the second season episodes are included on Blu-ray discs.
Falling Skies is a product of Dreamworks Television and is overseen by Spielberg. I've never been the biggest Spielberg fan, but he can be an amazing storyteller. The problem is that in English we don't have a word for someone who is a great storyteller but only if they're telling someone else's story. Spielberg would be the poster child for such a term. He's great at visuals and pacing, but he needs a strong script to keep him in line. More importantly, he's always had a bit of a magpie aesthetic—going back to the things he loved as a child to inspire future generations. When it all works well, we get a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark that harkens back to adventure serials, and when it doesn't work we get Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Falling Skies is somewhere in between these two poles, though it definitely keeps the magpie styling that Spielberg loves. Just about every element has been done elsewhere and been done better. You've seen a lot of these alien invasion plots in War of the Worlds or Alien Nation. You've seen the sci-fi elements in Battlestar Galactica, and the post-apocalyptic material looks a lot like The Walking Dead.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two things save the show from being a total retread of better (or at least more daring) shows. The first is the budget. Dreamworks has always had the clout to employ top-notch people behind the camera, and Falling Skies is no exception. Keeping the seasons down to ten episodes undoubtedly helps keep the budgets higher. The effects are solid and well thought out, convincingly conjuring a post-apocalyptic world. Though I would be hard-pressed to say that the show is worth watching just for the effects, they do help keep the show from being a waste.
The other thing that helps the show is the solid cast it puts in front of the camera. Noah Wylie has always traded on his geeky looking charm, and it's no surprise that someone would cast him as a history professor. It's a slightly better choice to cast him as a history professor who has to get gritted-up after an alien invasion. He's surprisingly believable as a leader desperate to save his son. Will Patton is also compulsively watchable as a retired military man. The rest of the cast hold their own and invest their sometimes-sketchy characters with a lot of heart.
The show also looks pretty good on Blu-ray. These 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers look close to broadcast quality. Detail is generally good, and color accuracy is spot-on. Black levels are consistent, though they can get a bit noisy at times. The biggest problem is that they've put all ten episodes on two discs so there are some compression artifacts. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks are similarly okay. Dialogue is clean and there are good use of the surrounds, but this mix defines "aggressive." I found myself riding the volume remote quite a bit as quiet dialogue switched to loud sound effects.
Extras start with commentary tracks on four episodes ("Worlds Apart," "Homecoming," "Molon Labe," and "A More Perfect Union"). Noah Wylie shows up on all of them, with various combinations of writers, directors, and even a producer. They're informative and fairly laid back. The rest of the extras come in the form of eight featurettes that cover everything from the writing of the show to the creation of some of its creatures. Fans also get Ultraviolet digital copies of the episodes.
Falling Skies pretty much defines mixed bag. It's got a healthy budget and a great cast but doesn't quite know what to do with them. It's a show that could benefit from a JJ Abrams-style grand vision. That mixed bag status has spilled over into Season Two. Though the extras are generous and the presentation okay, with an extra disc to put things on the presentation would have reached that next level. As it is, fans will enjoy this set, but it's hard not to think it could have been better.
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