TNT recently premiered their answer to AMC’s smash hit The Walking Dead by jumping on the apocalyptic bandwagon with Falling Skies. The premise is simple: it’s been six months since Earth was invaded by aliens and the few survivors are beginning to band together and fight back. Lead by ER‘s Noah Wyle, Falling Skies is to alien invasions what The Walking Dead is to the zombie apocalypse. Unlike The Walking Dead, as far as alien invasions go, Falling Skies is not very original.
Overused general plot aside, what surprised me about this show was the appearance of Stargate: SG1‘s Colin Cunningham. I admit, I was dubious when I saw his name flash across the screen. I hadn’t looked up the show before watching it so I didn’t know what type of character he played. I automatically figured he’d be one of the random survivors in Noah Wyle’s group. I was surprised when he finally appeared more than half way through the pilot episode with long hair, a goatee, and looking 100% badass. What followed was a performance that left me not only loving Colin as an actor, but wanting to watch more of the show just to see his character. And I’m not just saying that because he rocked the bad boy look either!
Cunningham plays John Pope, the leader of a band of survivor outlaws who spend their free time hunting and killing aliens for sport. He’s a rough and tough guy, obviously intelligent, with a slight touch of crazy. Cunningham’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. He has a clear grasp of who this man is and it shows. The writing for Pope is also well done, which certainly aids in the delivery of the character. Pope is a badass. He’s not a nice guy. He doesn’t do nice things and there’s no way in hell anyone should trust him…and yet, he’s the guy you want to be friends with. You want to join his gang of outlaws and have him show you how to kill aliens. Unfortunately, some of the other characters and cast aren’t as awesome.
Noah Wyle plays Tom Mason, a university professor and father of three boys. He is also one of the designated “fighters” in this particular group of survivors. Wyle’s performance is marginal at best. The only difference between Tom and ER’s Dr. Carter is maturity. The rest is pretty much the same and unmemorable in the apocalyptic setting. Which makes me wonder if Noah Wyle is an actor who just plays himself with a different name and situation.
Tom’s wife was killed in the invasion leaving him to tend to his three sons. One son, Ben, becomes one of the main plot devices after we learn that he’s been kidnapped and “harnessed” by the aliens. You see, the aliens have this habit of kidnapping the children of Earth (mostly just those between the ages of 13 and 18) and putting these harness things on their backs to make them mindless drones willing to do their bidding. By “bidding” I mean picking up scrap metal, because aside from marching that’s all we see the harnessed kids do.
Tom’s mission, whether the rest of the group (including some 200 odd civilians who are also missing kids) chooses to accept it or not, is to kidnap Ben from the aliens and remove his harness. His mission quickly becomes his entire focus. This is when the plot became irritating to me.
Tom has two other sons to take care of, including his youngest son Matt, played by Maxium Knight. Matt is a quiet soulfully depressed kid trying desperately to achieve some grasp of normality. Unfortunately for Matt, aside from the occasional pep talk from his dad, the only actual parental figure in his life is the group’s doctor, Anne Glass, played by Moon Bloodgood. Knight’s performance is touching and left me feeling terrible for him every time he was left behind while his dad went off to find his other, and clearly more important brother, Ben. It’s obvious from the behavior of Tom’s other two sons that their father’s way to love is through unending admiration for Ben.
At the end of the pilot I was disappointed that “finding Ben” was the driving plot of the show. With so many ways to examine the human condition in a situation of primal survival against unbeatable odds, the “I have to find my son” focus was terribly disappointing. There has been some marginal shifting in the driving plot during the second episode as Tom finally realized other people are missing their children too. By “marginal shifting” I mean that Tom’s focus was temporarily diverted from his cause to help the other children but the overlying plot still remains the same. He’s going to save Ben even if everyone else dies trying.
Tom’s older son Hal, played by Drew Roy, is a scout for the group along with his girlfriend Karen, played by Jessie Schram. We’re supposed to believe that the two have a relationship because they’re all lovey dovey in the abandoned bedroom of a 6 year old girl. Instead, what we get is a lot of awkwardness. We’re forced to believe a romantic relationship exists between two characters with absolutely no chemistry between them.
The leader of this band of survivors is Captain Weaver, played effortlessly by Will Patton. Weaver is a no-nonsense kind of guy who clearly either has a military background or watches a lot of war movies. Either way, Captain Weaver is the perfect leader for this rag tag group. He’s got the military knowledge to lead the fighters in missions for weapons, supplies and eventually against the aliens. What he also has is compassion for the civilians of the group. They are clearly his number one priority and it’s refreshing. Weaver is also able to remain rational and level headed no matter what kind of curve ball is thrown their way. And he’s able to reel Tom back in when he goes into one of his whining rants of “but we have to find my son!” Weaver is the perfect person to lead a group of survivors.
One thing that was appealing about Falling Skies was the minimal amount of hand waving going on. With few exceptions, everything was believable. This is a group of 200 plus people fighting to survive. There are no magical discoveries of the last fully stocked Walmart in the country, or a weapons mecca found in the middle of no where. These people are starving. They’re living on whatever food they can find, which means a lot of canned beans and rice. They’re struggling to find enough weapons and ammunition to defend themselves let alone enough to start an actual resistance movement. Though these situations play out behind the driving plot, they are no less real and far more interesting. I sincerely hope that the writers continue to examine the struggles of the survivors rather than implementing the hand waving technique to get themselves out of a proverbial corner.
The use of weapons was, perhaps, what drove the most comments from Lord Monkeypants as we watched. An avid shooter himself, Lord Monkeypants knows his guns. Unfortunately for me, I get to listen to him point out every weapons-based inconsistency.
Case in point, Tom and his crew of fighters go to a warehouse to try and find supplies. They’re confronted by several aliens, some are the unarmored six-legged gooey guys with faces suspiciously like the aliens from District 9, and some are bipedal creatures with Predator-esque laser sights and machine gun-like weapons covered in metal full body armor (or suits, it’s hard to tell if it’s really a different kind of alien or not).
The good guys are shooting the aliens (both kinds) with AK-47’s and M-16’s. AK-47’s take 7.62x39mm bullets, or pretty big bullets. M-16’s take 5.56x45mm bullets, or really big bullets. At close range, these bullets will defeat most body armor except for special heavy vests with ballistic rifle plates (thick ceramic armor plates). Therefore, they should have had no problem penetrating the metal armor of the bipedal aliens, let alone injuring the unarmored aliens. Their weapons seemed to be doing neither.
Of course the counter-argument would be that the alien technology and metallurgy is superior to ours and their metal is much tougher/stronger. If that’s the case…why did a shotgun (assumed to be firing buckshot) rip right through the head armor of the bipedal alien? Shotguns have piss-poor armor penetration. Slugs might do ‘OK’, but ANY kind of shot won’t even go through light to medium vests.
Any high powered rifle round is going to have WAY more penetrating power than a shotgun. A small, dense, pointy bullet traveling very very VERY fast vs. big, wide, heavy soft lead cylinder traveling at a much slower speed…which do you think would win? High powered rifle rounds are specifically designed to go through body armor and hard cover. Shotgun shells are designed for soft tissue like human or animal flesh, not armor. It’s not power so much as penetration, and buckshot just doesn’t cut it.
Though using a pump-action shotgun is much more dramatic. Lord Monekypants and I are just going to have to assume that the decision to make one gun more affective than another was based purely on what looked better as opposed to what really would have worked better, and that the majority of the fighters are really bad shots.
Overall, TNT’s Falling Skies is a good summer substitute for The Walking Dead. The special effects are surprisingly good and not overrun with budget quality CGI. The writing is interesting and the characters are fairly well thought out. While the driving plot continues to reach new levels of annoying, at times along with the main character, the sub-plots are able to pull the show up by its bootstraps.