TNT’s new science fiction drama Falling Skies debuts tonight in a special two-hour premiere. Does the show live up to nearly a year’s worth of hype?

Falling Skies begins about two steps after most alien invasion movies and TV shows: humanity has lost. There’s no valiant struggle showcasing the indomitable human spirit, no gotcha plot twists with Earth bacteria, no life-saving computer virus or solo mission to the mothership. The “Skitters” invaded six months ago, wiped out nine tenths of humanity, destroyed every military force, major city, as well as all electronics, and still have enough occupying forces to round up the dregs.

Even so, there are pockets of stubborn resistance. In one such pocket called “The 2nd Massachusetts” we find Tom Mason (Noah Wyle of The Librarian TV movies) – former history professor turned freedom fighter. He’s second-in command to the gruff and uncompromising veteran Weaver (Will Patton, Armageddon) overseeing 100 fighters and 200 civilians as they roam the eastern seaboard.

The fighters like to think of themselves as humanity’s last stand, but they’re really supplying just enough discipline for the lot of them to effectively travel as well as scavenge food and other resources. The youngest member of Tom’s unit is a hardened soldier of thirteen, and most of them are more comfortable with PlayStation shooters than their stolen AK-47s.

Tom’s motivations are split: he’s desperate to protect his teenage son Hal (Drew Roy) and younger son Matt (Maxim Knight) while still trying to find his third son Ben. The middle Mason has been captured by the Skitters along with thousands (or millions) of other children, and fitted with a “harness,” an alien device implanted on the spinal column that makes the victim helpless and cooperative.

Given the relatively novel setup, Falling Skies has a lot more in common with Jericho or The Walking Dead than Battle: Los Angeles and Independence Day. The resistance is constantly running, searching for food and shelter, and suddenly EMS workers and shade-tree mechanics are more valuable than MBAs. The needs of the “military” and civilians are at constant odds, setting up some strained confrontations between Weaver and the civvies’ spokeswoman Dr. Glass (Terminator: Salvation‘s Moon Bloodgood).

While the mood of the show is generally reserved, as the survivors struggle to stay together, there’s enough action across eighty minutes to keep the attention of TNT viewers who are used to cops & robbers fare. Even when not engaging the aliens, there’s enough paramilitary equipment and jargon to warrant repeat airings at the next NRA convention. A scene with a group of ill-tempered bandits has tension and action in commendable portions.

The only significant unresolved plot point following the two-hour pilot is the captured children held in sway by the alien harnesses. The audience is left wondering why the Skitters want the kids, and whether or not the survivors will ever be able to rescue and “cure” their captured family members. I’m looking forward to discovering what the aliens want with the kids – and why they spare children while killing adults indiscriminately.

Falling Skies displays impressive consistency and world-building. After the EMP bombardment, only pre-1980s vehicles still function, so the resistance has to make do with rusted out pickup trucks, ancient muscle cars and dilapidated motorcycles. The 2nd Massachusetts’ biggest military asset is a 50-caliber assault gun mounted on a GTO. The fighters have to rely on paper maps, scouts and runners to plan and execute movements across suburbia – using action figures as markers. The landscape is littered with the detritus of a ruined society, with cars and garbage strewn across the streets.

There’s a big focus on the surviving children and teenagers – a risky maneuver that pays off. The opening scene with Matt Mason, who refuses to assume that his father and brother are still alive, is heartfelt. The recurring theme of children forced to grow up immediately illustrates the desperation of the survivors.

While sets, costumes and practical effects are excellent, the same can’t be said for the computer-generated portion of the premiere. The aliens and their bipedal walkers look like they belong in a SyFy made-for-TV movie, and the producers know it, hiding shots of the Skitters and Walkers with scenery or dark environments. Even so, it’s hard to be too upset at lackluster effects – even with Spielberg’s name attached, Falling Skies is surely dealing with a tight budget, and the funds are certainly better spent building an immersive world than polishing the inhuman CGI monsters.

A bigger problem is the general lack of character in the main cast. Performances from Wyle and Bloodgood are competent but bland, and the only truly memorable characters on display in the premiere are Will Patton’s unsympathetic military commander and a predictably evil redneck. An improvised biology class comes off a lot more genuine than Tom’s lament over his captured son. The performances may get better as the actors get a stronger handle on their characters and the fictional world – but they’re definitely the low point of the debut.

Falling Skies has more going for it than against it, and is worth a watch for science fiction fans looking for something new. A visceral, dilapidated landscape and survivalist mentality help gloss over the bad computer effects and mediocre acting. The  short-term goal of rescuing Ben and nigh-impossible task of overthrowing the invaders warrants a look from those hungry for an interesting summer series.

Falling Skies premieres June 19th at 9PM on TNT.

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