INDEPENDENT by Ed Power
Steven Spielberg has a reputation as a saccharine film-maker but he can chill you to the marrow when he wants. His thumb-prints of doom are all over FX’s loudly trumpeted new alien-invasion saga “Falling Skies”, beginning as it does with a scary child’s voice-over telling of “visitors from the sky” killing all the grown-ups. If that isn’t disquieting enough, the monologue is accompanied by clumsy crayon renderings of extra terrestrials laying waste to North America. It’s the most unsettling title sequence since Twin Peaks.
Creepy pre-teens and jarringly realistic aliens are two long-time Spielberg specialties of course and both are front and centre on Falling Skies. As is their wont, hordes of scaly, spider-limbed invaders have descended on earth, turning the cities to ash and wiping out millions. Rather than killing the children, though, the nefarious gatecrashers plug the kids into a Borg-like network and use them as zombie-fied servants.
Scenes of blank-eyed teenagers doing exactly what they are told will likely scare the bejaysus out of parents precisely because such a state of affairs is so hard to imagine. Indeed, you might argue the most fantastical thing about Falling Skies is not the concept of an alien takeover but of the word’s adolescents being turned into docile worker ants.
While Spielberg didn’t direct “Falling Skies” his sensibility shines through on every frame (aided no doubt by a script from “Saving Private Ryan” screenwriter Robert Rodat). Perhaps his greatest gift is to make even the most epic premise feel intimate and human and it is for that reason that Falling Skies will probably appeal to viewers who could never bring themselves to watch hardcore sci-fi such as the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot.
Certainly, Falling Skies isn’t particularly concerned with the who and the why of alien takeover. All we know is that they show up one day, look vaguely crab-like and are after our kids. The story opens on the outskirts of a recently nuked Boston, where ER’s Noah Wyle is a one-time history teacher turned second in command to a putative resistance movement. The rebels don’t have any grand strategy — their goal is to simply kill the invaders and end the industrial-scale child snatching. Fortunately, the aliens aren’t quite as invulnerable to bombs and bullets as you might expect. “They die just like us,” says Wylie’s character. “You just have to get close”.
Falling Skies arrives at a peculiar moment for science fiction on television. By which we mean, there really isn’t much of it out there. Granted, Dr Who continues to rack up ratings, even if the current doctor looks all of 14 and has the gravitas of a naughty sixth former. Also, no matter how advanced special effects become, there’s always something inherently hokey about science fiction on the BBC — whenever an alien race turns up on Dr Who you can almost smell the cheap latex and bacofoil.
For several years, the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica was the great hope for sci-fi fans. Intriguing though the show was, however, it never quite transcended its initial cult following. Dense plotting and a icky moral ambiguity probably didn’t help. In BSG, there really were no black and whites, just a million shades of grey. Plus anyone with fond memories of the super naff seventies original would likely be horrified at what had been done to their precious show. It was as if Happy Days had been remade as a Scandinavian crime drama in which it never stopped raining.
When BSG wrapped its four season run in 2009, it left a yawning chasm in the sci-fi universe. Part of the problem, from a die-hard’s perspective at any rate, was that the SyFy network, so long the home of quality speculative drama had followed the lead of MTV and abandoned its core mission. Just as the former music television station now airs an unending parade of reality television, SyFy has repositioned itself as home to ‘so bad it’s good’ entertainment. In particular, it has built its night-time schedule around junk b-movies, the majority cheerfully churned out by Hollywood thrash-core studio the Asylum. If you are looking for somebody to blame for Megashark V Giant Octopus and its sequel Mega Python V Gataroid (starring, for reasons that remain unclear 80s teen pop icons Debbie Gibson and Tiffany), these are the culprits. In small — okay, microscopic — quantities this kind of hokum has a cheesy charm. But SyFy airs these films on an almost nightly basis, so that its schedule seems to consist almost entirely of barely watchable dross.
Still, the future isn’t irredeemably bleak. Though it can feel like a clunky knitting together of Independence Day and District 9, Falling Skies’ decent production values and brisk pacing bode well for its 10-week run.
Better yet, the digital station CBS Action is currently re-showing the original ’60s Star Trek in its entirety. Sometimes the only thing a science fiction fan needs is an hour in the company of William Shatner, Leonard Nemoy and random aliens in red miniskirts to feel all is well with the universe.