TV Review: TNT’s Falling Skies

What’s your least favorite part of any good alien invasion movie? It’s gotta be the first 20-30 minutes waiting for the invasion to start, where we are forced to “get to know” a slew of characters that will die off anyway except for the hero, his lady love, and possibly a resourceful dog or precocious kid. You won’t have that problem with TNT’s ambitious sci-fi show “Falling Skies” from producer Steven Spielberg, with Graham Yost (“Justified”), Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”), and Mark Verheiden (“Battlestar Galactica”) sharing writing, directing, and executive producing credits.

“Falling Skies” makes no bones about it — it’s the end of the world as we know it, and the aliens have won. Months after much of the world’s population have been killed off in the initial wave of attacks and all the governments fallen, a ragtag group of survivors, led by former college professor Tom Mason (“ER’s” Noah Wyle) and hardened, grizzly veteran Weaver (Will Patton) are making their way to a new base, their previous encampment having become exposed. Saddled with an overwhelming number of starving and helpless civilians, Weaver and Mason battle each other, the elements, fellow survivors turned marauders, and of course, those genocidal offworlders as they struggle to make it through another day.

Set to premiere on TNT next month, the first two hours of “Falling Skies” gets right down to business, opening with a child’s narration over what has happened so far. In short: they came, they saw, they conquered. Apparently it was our reluctance to nuke the suckers out of orbit that doomed us, because “we thought they might want to be friends”. As it turns out, not so much. (The lesson here, kids? See alien, nuke alien. Got it?) A bearded and ruffled Noah Wyle leads the cast as a father struggling to save the civilians in his care while at the same time keeping the remnants of his family in one piece. Tom has two sons to look after, the teenager Hal (Drew Roy) and pre-teen Matt (Maxim Knight), his wife having been killed in the initial attacks. Tom also has a third son, Ben (Connor Jessup), who is currently in the hands of the aliens, and like other abducted children, Ben has been enslaved by a mind-controlling doohickey that directly attaches to his spine. Oh yeah, that family reunion is gonna be awkward, alright.

Although much of the show’s action is seen through the eyes of the Mason clan, there is a huge ensemble cast around them. Patton’s gruff army soldier is the most prominent, next to Moon Bloodgood (putting away her “Terminator: Salvation” guns for a calmer touch in this particular post-apocalypse) as Anne, a former pediatrician turned all-purpose doctor. We don’t learn too much about Anne’s past in the first two hours, but that’s rectified in later episodes. Oldest son Hal has two little ladies after him — civilian nurse Lourdes (“The Last Airbender’s” Seychelle Gabriel) and Karen (Jessy Schram), a fierce fighter in her own right. Peter Shinkoda, currently playing videogame character Sektor in Kevin Tancharoen’s “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” web series, is Tom’s right-hand man Dai, a speak softly but pack a loud shotgun type of fellow. Another notable face is Dylan Authors, a 13-year old boy who barely looks big enough to carry the assault rifle he’s been saddled with. No doubt the show makes great use of Authors’ character to drive home the idea of “innocence lost”.

The enemy is an unknown alien race that doesn’t seem especially interested in communicating with us lowly human. Instead, these outer space invaders do most of their talking through Skitters, multi-legged insect-like bugs that are incredibly hard to kill (unless you get right up behind them with a shotgun, that is) and scours the land in search of victims. We are initially introduced to two types of aliens — the Skitters and the heavily armored Mechs, while alien fighterships roam the skies seeking out heat to drop bombs on. The Mechs (pictured below) look just like they sound, and anyone familiar with Japanese animation will instantly know what I’m talking about. Besides the fact that they want the planet, seem to want our children for some nefarious purposes, it’s anybody’s guess what the alien bugs are really after. And oh yeah, the aliens operate out of giant, towering structures that they’ve erected all over the planet. What exactly goes on in there? That and more, I suspect, will be explored further as the season progresses.

The first hour of “Falling Skies” finds Tom and his small band of fighters separated from the main group — the ragtag 2nd Massachusetts Army Regiment, currently led by Weaver, with Tom as his second-in-command (for the purposes of protecting the civilians from Weaver, essentially) — in search of food, while the second hour finds Tom and Weaver butting heads. After Tom realizes that his missing son Ben is still alive, he is determined to rescue his lost offspring. Weaver, being both incredibly practical and generally a hardass, disagrees. Tom also runs afoul of a marauder name Pope (Colin Cunningham of “Stargate” fame) and his merry band of low-life scumbags, doing what low-life scumbags do in times of crisis, which is make everyone’s life even more miserable. Cunningham is hilarious in the role, and should make for a delightful ongoing thorn in Tom’s side. The team also meets the dangerous Maggie (Sarah Carter), one of Pope’s crew.

“Falling Skies” has a decent budget, especially for a show on a basic cable network, but don’t mistake it for the likes of “Battle: Los Angeles” or any of its big-screen ilk. Much of the show takes place in the countryside and nondescript towns and streets, and most of season 1 is set in and around a local high school where the survivors make their new base. The action is plentiful, though not spectacular or epic in scale, and the aliens aren’t always convincing, whether as practical effects or as full-fledged CGI. The Mechs, as you might imagine, are completely CGI, while the Skitters switch from puppetry to CG, depending on what’s needed of them for the scene. Most of the action falls into the skirmish category, with the humans stumbling across the aliens or vice versa, though it’s amusing that we always seem to only find the Skitters either by themselves or in small groups of two’s. Cheaper that way, I guess. Then again, there is one scene where Tom and crew stumbles across four Skitters just, well, napping.

Noah Wyle makes for a surprisingly convincing resistance fighter/hero, even if I don’t necessarily buy him as a father of three. I mean, wow, three kids. Couldn’t they just have given him one or two — but three? John Carter has been busy! Tom’s best moment comes in the show’s third hour, which sees our college professor turned soldier going mano-a-mano with a Skitter. The (I kid you not) fist-fight that ensues between human and alien is simultaneously awesome and hilarious. The show’s other major role is Will Patton’s Weaver. Patton brings his usual brand of excellence to a man who will make sure the human race survives at all costs, even if that makes him the most unpopular man in his own Army.

The two-hour premiere of “Falling Skies” airs June 19th on TNT, after which the show airs on a weekly basis. Sci-fi fans haven’t had a whole lot to hang their hats on lately, with most of the alien menace showing up on the big screens. “Falling Skies” features a cast that would rival any big-budget Hollywood movie, and the guys running the show — Yost, Rodat, Verheiden, and Spielberg — aren’t chop liver, either.