Thursday, July 14, 2011

It Can Happen Here: The Cosmology of Falling Skies

The end of the world apparently can’t come soon enough for Hollywood. While doomsday movies have been a staple for decades, the recent plethora of apocalypse fare hints at some sort of self-loathing in an industry known for boundless self-admiration. Or is it merely tapping into the collective consciousness of a populace that’s “facing a dying nation,” to borrow a poignant lyric from Hair’s “Let the Sunshine In”? Make that “facing a dying planet” and you have the current state of despair among those alarmed about the deteriorating environment and the ever-present peril of nuclear annihilation.

Now halfway through its ten-episode summer debut on TNT and already renewed for another season, Falling Skies substitutes an alien invasion for endangered polar bears and Pakistan’s arsenal. The somewhat derivative series begins six months after 90 percent of humanity has perished in the initial conflagration. Ragtag survivors in and around Boston band together to fight the “Skitters,” enormous spider-like sentient beings, and their even more gigantic metallic robots, dubbed “Mechs.” The chief writer and creator, Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan – 1998, and The Patriot – 2000) is a Harvard grad who reportedly still lives in Cambridge. Although ostensibly set in the Bay State, the series is shot in Toronto – the hometown of Graham Yost, who shares executive producer chores with Steven Spielberg. 

In 1954, nine years after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla was Japan’s way of looking at horrific reality through the lens of entertainment. Radiation unleashes a mutant lizard! The original War of the Worlds (1953) had a strong subtext of Cold War paranoia. Conquering commies! In an era of sexy vampires and werewolves, can yet another onslaught of aliens represent appropriate symbolism for today’s dread? Sure, even in a time of unprecedented ”psychic numbing” (detachment from emotions in the face of trauma). The term was coined in 1967 by Robert J. Lifton, a psychiatrist who had studied how rescue workers coped with the aftermath of the Hiroshima catastrophe. “And I also thought about ways in which all of us undergo what could be called the numbing of everyday life,” he once explained. “That is, we are bombarded by all kinds of images and influences and we have to fend some of them off if we're to carry through just our ordinary day's work.”

Maxim Knight & Noah Wyle
In other words, we all numb to some degree in order to simply function. People in the throes of extreme numbing frequently drink excessively or take drugs to avoid thinking about what we fear is the looming inevitability of extinction. Most of the characters in Falling Skies can’t allow themselves that luxury. Happily, resisting fate makes them stronger. They call themselves the Second Massachusetts in honor of a volunteer infantry regiment from Revolutionary War days. The enemy is no longer Redcoats, but slimy gray arachnids from outer space. So far, nobody’s quite sure why they want to vanquish Earthlings. Unlike the onscreen wages of madness in Children of Men (2006) or TV’s cancelled Jericho, this dystopia presumably is not our fault.

The Skitters have kidnapped children they keep as mindless slaves by virtue of biological harnesses that resemble lobsters attached to their backs. One of those zombified kids is Ben (Connor Jessup), the adolescent son of Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a former Boston University history professor now among the top commanders of the human army. He has his two other boys with him, eight-year-old Matt (Maxim Knight) and teenager Hal (Drew Roy) – who is mature enough to serve as a motorcycle scout ferreting out the locations of Skitters so the combatants can safely access sources of food, water, medicine, fuel and ammo.

Colin Cunningham
In addition to the threat from extra-terrestrials, there’s a ruthless gang of outlaws straight out of Mad Max central casting. They’re boozing, thuggish dim bulbs but their leader is smartypants Pope (Colin Cunningham), a sarcastic dude who happens to be highly literate and a great cook. This becomes evident when he’s captured by the Resistance and conjures up gourmet meals for them out of lackluster provisions. He also provides the show’s only real comic relief, so his subsequent escape is disappointing: Less laughs in a downbeat series and a less enticing menu for the other characters. (According to, the Internet Movie Database, the actor appears in nine episodes, so hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Pope.)

His humor is in stark contrast to the morose persona of Captain Weaver (Will Patton), a retired military man now in charge the Second Massachusetts who glowers and shouts orders. We do suspect he has a special affinity for reggae, however, when listening mournfully to Jimmy Cliff sing “Many Rivers to Cross” on a vinyl soundtrack album from The Harder They Come (1972). Somebody please light up a spliff! The stereo must be battery powered, since America has been off-the-grid after the Skitters knocked out all electricity and 21st-century technology.

Moon Bloodgood
No television drama would be caught dead without a little romance. Falling Skies offers Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), a pediatrician clearly attracted to Tom; both have lost their spouses in the invasion. A trio of pretty girls is ready for Hal to woo when he’s not busy shooting Skitters. Karen (Jessie Schram) is his main squeeze until she is abducted by the Spiders from Mars, or wherever. Margaret (Sarah Carter) looks a lot like the blonde Karen but edgier, probably in that she was a captive of Pope’s gang until rescued by the good guys. Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel) has a crush on both Hal and Jesus. In the most syrupy episode so far (“Grace”), she inspires all her fellow Resistance members to join in an impromptu Christian worship. What, not a single Jew or Muslim or Buddhist has survived? Aren’t the Skitters equal-opportunity killers?

The half-Jewish Wyle, who remained mostly poker-faced during his eleven seasons as a doctor on ER, demonstrates more facial expressions this time around but the role of an upright citizen is inherently confining. To date, he does not seem to have any of the interesting complexity associated with other television heroes like, say, Jack (Matthew Fox) on Lost or Claire (Lauren Ambrose) on Six Feet Under. The blandness of his Falling Skies name, Tom Mason, is matched by similarly drab monikers throughout: For example, why choose Anne Glass when the actress portraying her is Moon Bloodgood, a lady of Korean, Dutch and Irish ancestry? And kindly old Uncle Scott (Bruce Gray), a science wizard who teaches biology to the young ’uns, could have been kindly old Uncle Moishe or Hamid or Nguyen. The smattering of marginal African-Americans (Mpho Koaho as Anthony) and Asians (Peter Shinkoda as Dai) on the program doesn’t quite add up to a truly diverse community able to relaunch civilization.

Meanwhile, the production looks like suburbia gone rogue. Not too rogue, though. The proceedings tend to become a bit sluggish whenever the action stops for sentimentality, which is often. Maybe the pace will pick up if Pope – whose psychic numbing at least gives him some room to party – comes back into the fold. As the grim Captain Weaver drowns his sorrow in “Many Rivers to Cross,” the feisty chef’s more apt anthem might be the Hair (his is long) refrain: “Who knows what stands in front of our lives/ I fashion my future on films in space/ Silence tells me secretly/ Everything/ Everything.” Even if the skies fall, let the sunshine in.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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