The National Catholic Review
TNTs 'Falling Skies'
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I recently enjoyed a barbeque at the Connecticut home of a former student and his wife. The topic of backyard wildlife came up, the most fearsome being the largest snapping turtle they had ever seen, although they assured me that a mountain lion had also been reported in Connecticut. That lead to the topic of guns, and my host reminded me that his grandfather, a former Marine, still sleeps with a handgun under his pillow. “Loaded?” I said.

“Of course. Not much use if it’s not loaded.”

His wife expressed—at least to my mind—a correct abhorrence of household guns. Yet even though one’s chance of being shot increases significantly with gun ownership, nothing seems able dim the American romance with firepower. 

You can catch a glimpse of America’s ballistic soul on “Falling Skies,” the popular new summer series on TNT produced by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks USA. Always clairvoyant when it comes to the American zeitgeist, Spielberg may have caught the cadence of the Tea Party. In the winsome words of one youth, “Just remembering, what was it? Seven or eight months ago, you wouldn’t let me ride my bike over to Julian’s at night because I didn’t have a bike light. Now you’re offering me extra ammo.”

Why is that? The show’s premise could not be more trodden. Aliens have invaded earth, though in this series one searches in vain for their presence beyond American borders. Who cares about the rest of the planet? They have landed on American soil! All electronic devices have been instantaneously disabled. The child-voiced prologue explicates: “computers, radios, satellites, cars, TVs...everything!” The only thing standing between us and them are guns, handed out to anyone who can use them, even a 15-year-old Dickensian waif named Jimmy (Dylan Authors). 

We might have been able to defend earth if we had nuked the “Skitters” when we had the chance, but the federal government wavered. Given that the series is set in the immediate future, one can only surmise that the aliens arrive before the 2012 election, when American foreign policy was still under a misguided policy of “Ask questions first, then shoot.”

Standing at the center of “the resistance” is American History Professor Tom Mason (Noah Wiley, who played Dr. John Carter on "ER"). In addition to wielding a rifle, his job is to put this catastrophe into perspective. “If we can hurt them, they’ll leave. History is full of inferior forces creating so much trouble that the invading army leaves. The Athenians at Marathon; the Scottish at Sterling Bridge; and our revolution fought right here, Red Sox, Yankees, '04. We can beat them.” The series divines a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan American desire to be the underdog. Why do we always have to be the Goliath? Or rather, why don’t others see that, even if we appear to be an imperialistic empire controlled by the unfettered interests of capitalism, we’re still the honorable and lovable New England patriots who first stood up to the British?

To underscore that point, the resistance, made up of refugees from Boston, is called “The Second Massachusetts.” In the opening scene, a female soldier laments, “South Boston, South Boston, South Boston. They’ve got South Boston!” Clearly the apocalypse is upon us, though it’s hard not to wonder if the folks in Kansas are even aware that we have been invaded. This is a show about having to flee the cities; rural folk are evidently of little concern.

Professor Tom is a rifle with a heart. Two of his sons are with him, one unfortunately not yet able to wield a weapon. A third has been “harnessed” by the Skitters. But the professor is only second-in-command: Captain Weaver (Will Patton) is the real military man. An Iraqi war veteran, hard enough to keep the civilians moving, he refuses to go back to search for Tom’s captured son. For him, civilians are “too many, too slow.” He calls them “eaters,” because they contribute nothing to defense. One doesn’t need superior alien intelligence to know that somewhere in the first season, crusty Captain Weaver will sacrifice himself for another, showing that beneath that scabrous exterior beats a silky warm heart.  

By far the most interesting character is John Pope, a villainous profiteer. The actor Colin Cunningham graces the role with a glee not seen since Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” When reminded by Professor Tom that Americans won their revolution, he mordantly asks if that’s “the right—what do you call it—analogy? Instead of us being the Colonials and the aliens being the Redcoats isn’t it more like we’re the Indians and they’re the never-ending tide of humanity coming in from Europe. How’d that work out for the Indians?” In episode three, when allowed to accompany the resistance, but without a gun, he responds, “Unarmed? What am I, Canadian?” Fortunately for the resistance, but regrettably for the viewer, his chest also conceals a noble heart.

At its best, science fiction resets the human condition so that we can see our own humanity in a new a light. “Falling Skies” borrows heavily from Syfy’s “Battlestar Gallatica” (2004-2009). The robotic bipeds, which the aliens use to pursue the patriots, appear to have been rented from the same studio. Fortunately, they are poor shots. In fighting robots made by humans, “Battlestar” posed the better philosophical question: will we eventually become the victims of our own technology? “Falling Skies” falls back upon a more familiar trope. These aliens are reptilian, and one never has to ask about the humanity of reptiles. We know from Genesis itself that they are pure evil, the apotheosis of the alien. Rack and load! Or in the words of Tom Mason: “Retreat, regroup, return, revenge.”

This is not to say that there aren’t some good questions already raised in the series premiere. A young woman who “was in the church on the corner praying” is challenged for believing in a God who clearly wasn’t there when needed. One can see the American psyche still struggling to reconcile American exceptionalism and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In the second episode, hoping for some shreds of information, parents hold up pictures of their missing children. I suspect the series will resolve its theodicy the same way Americans always do: God allows our enemies to take advantage of us so that truth, goodness and the American way will triumph, leaving no doubt as to the Almighty’s love of the U.S. of A.

Not having seen how the series plays out, I can’t help but to wonder—on the basis of future clips—if the alien “harnesses” on the children reveal a Faustian bargain. Are they to be given something like immortality in exchange for perpetual servitude? If so, the series will accurately express a contemporary apprehension of the God/world relationship: human autonomy. 

Put another way, is there room for a God who tries to come between America and her guns?

The Rev. Terrance W. Klein is professor of theology at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y., and author of "Vanity Faith."

Comments

Norman Costa | 7/19/2011 - 12:14pm

 


The next question is, "Does it work?" Let's compare it to Battlestar Galactica (the newer series) and see how it compares.


Characters: In BSG we loved them, hated them, cheered them, booed them. We changed our minds about them, we cared about them, we became confused about them. They became even more interesting when they disappointed us. These things only happen when the characters are developed, and they have some amount of complexity. And they are believable and we can identify with one or more of them.


The characters in FS are wooden and are about as complex and a fried egg over easy. This is a shame because there are some very good actors in this program. Noah Wiley, for one, is very talented. But, you gotta work with the script and director you are given.


Writing: In BSG it did not tax the imagination to feel that these were real words that real people would use in the many varieties of scenes. The words were believable and so were the ideas, the conflicts and the scenarios. 


Now try putting yourself in the shoes of an actor in FS. How often would you feel comfortable using the words they use? Does it feel staged? Of course, this is a video production and it is supposed to be staged. But, it is not supposed to come across as being staged.


The Bad Guy(s): OK, we have had robots around for a long time. Nothing new here. What is new, from time to time, is how cleverly a robot is used and developed. Some are really bitchin' bad. Others are funny, playful, and can be extremely clever - even to the point of saving everyone's butt. Perhaps the most clever use of robots, on a par with the Matrix trilogy, was found in BSG. Robots evolved, and they did it all by themselves. Then they produced two types: a bio-mechanical blend with a walking around version, and a fighter aircraft version; a biological host machine populated with a disembodied digitized central nervous system (mind) that is way awesome. It is so spectacular that it develops features that were unexpected, like a conscience, altruism, caring, desire for peace, worry over their future fate, and emotions. All this without a supernatural origin for a soul.


In FS I just wish they could be a little more creative. Why do so many alien villains (and there are a lot of them in film) have to look like the "Predator?" It there anything more cliche than having evil personified as someone who is ugly? It is not exactly a monster-of-the-week series, but it is pretty damn close.


The Mechs are another borrowed lot. There is one innovation that stands out, though. They make so much friggin' noise when they walk around that I do not understand how they can ever surprise the freedom fighters. You can hear these clunky tanks two klicks away.


So, does it work? Not for me, but it may work well enough be successful for a few seasons. 


Is there something that can be gleened from this show that tells us about guns, American politics, and the American psyche? This is a matter of opinion. In my personal view, it is a passable sci-fi production about freedom fighters in a post-disaster world.  We have a few more centuries to go before a combat soldier could set his phaser to STUN, as an option.

Norman Costa | 7/19/2011 - 11:21am

 


@ Father Terrance:


Well, I watched 7 episodes of "Falling Skies" on TNT's online selection of videos. What we have is a straight-forward post-disaster genre. Disaster comes in a variety of forms: Nuclear holocaust, invasion from outer space, world-wide plague, inundation (Waterworld), attack by giant bugs, capture and enslavement, and different flavors of body snatching to name a few.


These stories, aside from their entertainment value, usually carry a message. Sometimes we call them message movies. The messages are also varied: Your nuclear weapons will destroy you and your enemy; you have attained knowledge that is forbidden to you; you should have been better prepared; your enemy will destroy you from within; you were not vigilant and let your guard down; wimpy scientists want to study the creatures that come to destroy you; fighting for survival, which means killing bad guys (or things,) is the natural course of things; the hero is an absolute requirement.


The whole gun thing is a demonstration of how feeble they are compared to the sophisticated armaments of the enemy. But the hero fights with whatever weapon is at hand. Does anyone remember "...the blue blade that the King's son bore?" They improvise, make their own weapons, and even press ancient weapons of war into service against the bad guys. There is no C-4 plastique lobby, nor Molotov cocktail lobby, nor crossbow lobby. So why should we associate, quickly, to a gun lobby. Freedom fighters are killing and dieing, and it does not get any more complicated than that.

Mike Evans | 7/18/2011 - 5:48pm
I haven't watched an episode yet. Is this another Red Dawn where we will be saved by the high school football team? Will it be a foretaste of guerrila warfare tactics, betrayals, and senseless slaughter? The variety of possible premises is scary, and the mindset of the writers as yet unknown.
Robert Klahn | 7/18/2011 - 4:01pm

I watched part of one episode. Though I do not have a problem with action movies, and am a long time fan of Science Fiction, I didn't watch an entire episode. I think you hit the weaknesses pretty good. My description to my wife was, it's like a reality TV series with aliens.

John Lyons | 7/17/2011 - 10:07pm
Yes, let's stipulate that the USA is 'bad' in Iraq and the plucky insurgents (who've done most of the killing of Iraqis since 2003) are the 'good patriotic heros'.

So what? The author's snark is that guns are icky and silly and America's gun culture is stooopid. But the scenario of aliens or Iraqis, both shows a scenario whereby rifles in the hands of desperate people can and do 'matter' and can and do make occupation of any people no longer a 'done deal'.

And the author wonders why America has a love affair with guns? Uh...maybe because they're pretty effective against tyranny?
william mcgrath | 7/17/2011 - 9:29pm

Falling skies seems like a straight switch for the U.S./Iraq holocaust.  The "Americans" in the series are clearly the Iraqis who are used and butchered as desired by the invaders.  The "American" resistance is very much like that of the real Iraqi resistance fighters.  Their country is destroyed, the enemy has god-like weapons superior to anything the fighters have.  Their country is polluted with modern chemical and nuclear weapons (DU).  Many of their countrymen have been "harnessed" to act as collaborators and puppet troops.  Yet they fought and fight on with light infantry weapons to expell the murderous and inhuman alien invaders.  I have only watched one episode, probably my last, but this is what I got out of it.  William

Norman Costa | 7/16/2011 - 3:58pm

 


@ Fr. Terrance:


Thenks for the review.


I am not sure this program will appeal to me, but you made a couple of very interesting observations. I loved the entire series of the new Battlestar Galactica. There were many reasons for its success. Among them was avoiding the "Monster of the Week" character of the First BSG, starring Lorne Greene. I am wondering if Falling Skies will follow the "Monster" motif.


Another reason for its success is captured in your observation that BSG asked a fundamental and timely question. Will be be the victims of our own technology? Also, can we find humanity in an alien race? If you are right about FS, as you descrbed above, then it does not interest me very much.


Following on these excellent observations of yours, it certainly was ironical that the very end of BSG burst the humanity bubble to reveal that the entire story of civilization - BSG-wise - was actually a computer simulation. It was a dead give-away at the end when Model 6 said that when the program is given a chance to run many times, some interesting and unexpected results can be observed.


So, I hope they have some decent writers who can do more than a "Monster" show, and stretch the mind and thought process a bit. Eschewing angels, demons, and things that go bump in the night (though very popular) would also be welcomed by this viewer.


 


 

John Lyons | 7/15/2011 - 2:31pm
But the first objection to the author's critique of Falling Skies ought to land at the heart of the question about civilian ownership of firearms given the scenario in question.

After all, all sit coms and movies require the viewer to accept the premise - be it a mysterious lost island, an impossibly politically incorrect boss running an office full of stereotypes... or some gritty police or hospital drama full of characters.

So given the premise of an alien invasion and subsequent dire danger civilian survivors have of death or abduction by them.... what does the author propose the protagonists do without the use of firearms?

Yes civilian survivors use firearms "like soldiers" - but is the critique that guns are intrinsically icky or that guns are magic totems whose use may only validly be employed by the high-priests of "government sanction" and thus non-government use of them is a sacriledge?

So a cop who has only a basic level of firearm instruction is seen as not only beyond suspicion and worry about misuse of firearms, he's also seen as an expert in all things to do with guns...whereas a "mere civilian" enthusist who is both a sportsman and hunter and invests thousands of dollars and man hours to the use of weapons... is considered automatically suspect, a risk, and a reckless danger to himself?

In their ideal world of zero private ownership of firearms - in which only cops and robbers have guns, ammo, and the experience needed to employ them.... how would the author propose the survivors of alien conquest endure such a scenario? Absent a saving UN to issue stern warnings or a snarky New York Times to pen blistering editorials against them, how will the alien invasion be stopped in this situation minus civilian use of guns?

For that matter - how did the plucky colonists fight the superpower of their age, the British empire, except by means of private and privateer ownership and use of arms?
John Lyons | 7/11/2011 - 1:04pm
Another concept the author opines about - how America as a nation and Americans as a people can possibly be potrayed as the underdogs.... with the implication being that only the underdog is genuine and good.... needs addressing.

It's true that since World War 2, the US military has indeed been the superior force in theater everywhere and every time it has been called on to topple regimes, push back Communist advances or just hold the line in stalemates.... but local superiority does not mean we were always Goliah to some Viet cong David. Certainly from 1948 to 1989 the Communist Goliah had vocal and widespread 5th columns here at home and around the western world telling us that Communism was the historically inevitable giant we ought to surrender to and against whom resistance was futile.

Todays wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also hue true to this template: we are locally superior but in a sea of adversaries who, with many vocal allies in the West, assure us that their world view is historically inevitable, that resistance to their aims is futile, that we may very well win every battle, but we're guaranteed to lose the war, and hence as a civilization (and as opposing religions or ideological philosophical world views) we need to do whatever we can to AVOID annoying them to say nothing of absolutely not even considering the option of actively trying to convert them! So who really is the underdog?

In terms of civilian ownership of firearms....who's the underdog? The very war on terror has shown us countless examples of how futile insurgents' weapons are against our professional militaries.... but it has also shown us countless examples of how armed Iraqi and Afghani townsfolk have turned away these same forces from raiding or pillaging their towns.... so while it's probably true that no amount of civilian ownership of deer rifles will preclude some future US dictator from getting his or her way with force via professional secret police.... it's also true that civilian ownership of firearms will indeed make it less likely and less a sure thing for anything less than that!

Finally, again, going to the unspoken presuppositions in the authors' essay.... why ought we trust police and military with weapons if we don't trust our fellow citizens with them? Is it merely a coincidence that all the big cities with the most rigorous anti-gun laws are also cities with a majority population of african americans? Gun laws in the US have a long and well documented pedigree as coming from a distinctly racist mindset. A mindset that says that "we the people" can't be trusted...but the government - anyone who works for "the state" is automatically trustworthy and never, ever, at risk for misuse of their power.

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