By Caryn James | James on Screens June 17, 2011 at 3:30AM
If you happen to be caught in an apocalyptic world after an alien invasion, you could do much worse than having Noah Wyle prowling around hunting the aliens and trying to save civilization. In Falling Skies, TNT’s high-profile, Spielberg-produced new series, Wyle plays Tom Mason, a Boston University professor and military historian forced to put all that book learning to practical use.
Having Steven Spielberg as executive producer is not necessarily anything special anymore – he seems to do that a lot – but Falling Skies shows his fingerprints in its sleek storytelling and effective mix of high adventure and family warmth.
The story begins six months after the invaders have landed, causing many deaths, including that of Tom’s wife. (The opening credits evoke kids’ memories after 9-11.) Tom is part of a militia led by an actual and of course crusty military vet (Will Patton), determined to track down the two kinds of aliens. The skitters are six-legged creatures with bug-like heads; the skitters’ metallic robots, called mechs, are giant and Transformer-like.
No one knows why the skitters have come, but they have been abducting adolescents, including Tom’s middle son. They attach creatures called harnesses, which look like sick lobsters, to the kids’ necks, turning them into zombie slaves.
Tom tries to rescue his son as part of a roving guerilla band that also includes his good-looking 16-year-old son, his cute youngest son, and a pediatrician named Anne (Moon Bloodgood) who likes Tom a lot. There is a bit of everything here - teen love, adult romance, guns, adorable kids, monsters. And like most survivors of on-screen apocalypses, these people seem to have an endless supply of makeup and hair products.
All this is set out in Sunday’s two-hour premiere, the first hour directed by Carl Franklin. The series’ creator, Robert Rodat, wrote Saving Private Ryan, and Falling Skies has a similar theme of war heroes fighting to save their country while longing for a peaceful family past. The series’ most distinctive touch may be the way it savors history, although in a glancing way. Set around Boston, the story is full of Revolutionary War echoes, which is the very subject Tom taught. And there are more pronounced echoes of World War II movies, as the guerillas call themselves the Resistance.
Wyle works as the sensitive guy turned action hero; it turns out Tom is better at blasting and capturing aliens than the army guys around him are. And the series really takes off in the second and third episodes, when Steven Weber arrives as a doctor who has a fraught past with Tom, and we get a closer look at the skitters.
At times the writing is too grandiloquent: “No matter how each of us survived, maybe we owe it to those who didn’t (dramatic pause) to become the best of mankind,” Tom says. Or maybe not. There’s some much-needed irreverence in the character of John Pope, a long-haired renegade who dryly says, “Being the leader of a post-apocalyptic gang of outlaws has been exhausting.”
Falling Skies doesn’t get points for originality. At times it plays like a less bleak version of The Walking Dead, a less scary District 9. But with its glossy production and its brainy Dad of an action hero, it is an entertaining, absorbing adventure.