Season 3 of the TNT action-drama series Falling Skies begins this Sunday at 9 EDT with a two-hour season premiere episode. With Steven Spielberg and Graham Yost among its executive producers, the series has a fine pedigree, and in fact it strikes me as rather superior to most of Spielberg’s prior work. It differs from his other science-fiction TV shows and movies in that the adult characters are quite mature in their approach to things—a fact greatly to be appreciated.
The series tells the story of an alien attack against the earth and its human population, and the small bands of survivors who try to fight back. With 90 percent of the world’s population already killed—the planet’s human population has literally been decimated—the survivors obviously have their work cut out for them.
This brings us to a common logical problem with these alien-attack stories: aliens sufficiently advanced and powerful to get to the earth and attack humanity would very likely be nearly invulnerable to any counterattacks we could mount, as they would surely have studied us sufficiently to know what they needed to defend themselves against. That problem was handled particularly well in the George Pal version of The War of the Worlds in the 1950s: near the beginning of the film, the narrator states that the Martians watched us for years before attacking, and were simply unstoppable by any human response once they began their attack.
Falling Skies has a good answer for this, though it’s only implicit and never stated openly, to my recollection at least. The aliens must surely have seen how fractured and disturbed American society (among others) has become in recent decades, and undoubtedly they expected to be able to count on us to fall apart at the first sign of trouble. Indeed, that may well account for the quick decimation of the world’s population. The few remaining people, however, manage to overcome their differences to some degree and pull together to fight the invaders, and references to American history are adduced throughout the narrative to lend this notion both plausibility and historical resonance.
The two central characters of the story embody this. Boston University Professor Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and retired Army captain Dan Weaver are initially hostile toward each other, with Mason seeing Weaver as an ignorant hardhead (which is a reasonable assessment of him initially), and Weaver seeing Mason as an overly sensitive intellectual whose insights are impractical in matters military (which likewise carries a germ of truth). The two come to understand the need for each other’s wisdom in leading their motley band of survivors to relative safety, and they soon join forces to protect the citizenry and fight back against the invaders. The group of people becomes the 2nd Massachusetts Militia Regiment under the two men’s leadership.
This relationship between the two leaders strengthens as they battle not only the aliens but also other human antagonists such as the smarmy government official Arthur Manchester (Terry O’Quinn), the clever but manipulative and undisciplined criminal gang leader John Pope (Colin Cunningham), and the alien-controlled teenager Karen Nadler (Jessy Schram). Female characters are given great prominence, including the physician, Dr. Anna Glass (Moon Bloodgood), whose judgment is largely quite sound, and Maggie (Sarah Carter), a young woman soldier of great skill who has a mysterious past of which she is ashamed, in addition to the strange and sinister but also rather tragic Miss Nadler, who is clearly working for the aliens but whose prior self might still be trapped somewhere in her alien-controlled body.
The antagonists and the survivors both suggest the great diversity of the American public, which can be a strength and is shown as such in the narratives, but has equal power to destroy, as these characters indicate. As such the show has much to suggest about both the current state of the nation and its history, but does so by example and not outright statements, and hence it reminds us of important truths without becoming didactic. In this way the show always seems rather subtly patriotic, recognizing the nation’s failures while appreciating the great good of which the American people have always been capable and usually able to produce.
The acting in the show is topnotch, as are the other production elements. The aliens and their buildings, technology, and war-making devices are imagined cleverly and depicted quite convincingly through CGI effects. An especially effective element of the aliens’ technology is their ability to attach a large parasite to the spine of young humans, which takes over their will, enslaves them, and may ultimately turn them into aliens. This creates a sense of great horror at the center of story, beyond even the mass killings and destruction of cities, which is of course quite an accomplishment. In particular, this horrible enslavement of young people motivates the humans to fight back desperately, lest their children be lured or captured and subjected to this fate.
The battle scenes between the humans and aliens are likewise thought out sensibly and depicted persuasively and with suitable energy and excitement. The aliens’ weapons—including large, well-armed robot warriors called Mechs and insect-like creatures called Skidders—are formidable, and the militia’s discovery of potential weaknesses in the aliens’ armaments is both plausible and interesting, especially as it shows human ingenuity and American pragmatism at work. The consequences of the fighting are shown in a level of detail that conveys the true scale of the events while refraining from excessive sensationalism and gore for gore’s sake. In short, the fight scenes are both powerful and tasteful, a combination that Hollywood seems to have all but forgotten since the mid-1960s and is an exceedingly welcome change.
In fact, in this and many other ways Falling Skies seems a throwback to older ways of storytelling in Hollywood, when intellect and character were respected and were depicted as the true deciding factors in people’s lives, with sensational elements always welcome but only in the context of a good and sensible story. Just as the characters of Falling Skies benefit from the lessons of history, it seems the producers have done so as well. Let’s hope other film and TV makers will soon do the same.