Saturday, June 25, 2011
Falling Skies, the new science fiction alien invasion drama, which premiered on TNT last Sunday night, is the latest in a number of alien invasion movies and TV programs to be released in the past year. Because of this, undoubtedly comparisons will be made to them, but I think Falling Skies thus far manages to put a slightly different spin on the sub-genre.
Alien invasion movies and TV shows have been done extensively since the early 50’s, so I don’t think there is any way to make it completely fresh or original. Going back to H. G. Wells’ original War of the Worlds, on which most modern alien invasion movies and TV shows are still modeled on, Wells used the Martians’ invasion of England as a metaphor for the U.K’s increasing anxiety towards the Europeans and the political tensions that eventually led to the First World War. Just as most of the alien invasion films and TV programs of the 1950s and 1960’s were metaphors for our fear of communism and the cold war in general. Without the fear of either a conventional world war or a worldwide nuclear war, I have to wonder why we are suddenly being inundated by both film and television stories of alien invasion? I believe that since the world wide terrorist attacks on major urban centers, which culminated on the destruction of the Twin Tower buildings in New York City and the loss of over two thousand lives in 2001, there has been an overall fear of sudden invasive attacks on our personal homes. Once again, science fiction affords itself to addressing these anxieties as metaphor; substituting the terrorists for aliens.
Falling Skies immediately separates itself from most alien invasion entertainments, by starting the series six months after the initial invasion. From a practical TV budget standpoint, it makes perfect sense, because you avoid the high cost of producing the large scale special effects to demonstrate the world wide invasion. From a story telling perspective, it lends itself to more intimate character studies and smaller scale physical confrontations – something TV does best – as well as create continuing storylines for multiple characters – something that TV series are tailor made for.
The first two hour pilot episode of Falling Skies tells the story of the result of an alien invasion that first neutralized the world's power grid and then destroyed the combined militaries of the world by focusing its superior technological weaponry on the major cities and population centers. It is inferred that over 90% of the human population is killed within a few days. The program centers on a group of survivors in Boston, who band together just to survive the indentured alien forces. The group calls itself The Second Massachusetts and is a militia lead by the remnants of military men and women who survived the initial invasion.
The main character of Falling Skies is Tom Mason, who being a former university professor of history, is more educated than most heroes. However, he is stuck with the cliché of being a widower looking after his sons alone and also trying to deal with the difficulty of being second in command of his militia unit, as well as looking for one of his sons who has been captured by the aliens. Ann Glass, a pediatrician and strong – but not male-like – female character, seems to be more than just friends with Tom, and may become more of a permanent part of his extended family. In typical modern fiction, the most interesting character thus far is John Pope (which is a terrible name) who is a former gang-leader and natural anarchist and now appears to have been coerced into joining the militia. Each one of these characters represents an archetype: the military leader, the civilian philanthropist and the rebellious outsider.
I’m not too pleased with the start of the first episode as it begins with the group retreating away from Boston for the safer environs of the suburbs. But from the preview of the second episode, it looks like that may be changing for the better. I like the fact that we see at least two examples of the aliens: The Walkers (two-legged robots) and Skitters (multi-limbed insect-like creatures). We’ve also seen that the robots are not of a similar design as the alien skitters and can speculate that the aliens in the motherships may be of a different design altogether. The children are seen being taken as slaves by the aliens and fitted with mind-controlling bio-tech harnesses for reasons unknown, but which seems to indicate a pattern to the aliens’ invasion methods.
The sci-fi tech and world building on Falling Skies is thus far fairly impressive and the promise of more background information being revealed soon will keep me interested for some time. However, like all television series, the success of Falling Skies will ultimately fall on whether we like and empathize with the various characters. So far, I’m finding myself pulling for most of them and I’ll be tuning in again next Sunday night to find out what happens next.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
To begin with, I need to get this complaint out of the way. Nearly every review of Super 8 that I have read has compared it with Steven Spielberg’s iconic science fiction films of the late 70’s/early 80’s: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Super 8 shares a setting in common with Close Encounters and shares a child-centric theme with E. T. – and that is it!
I think the problem from the outset is that because Super 8 is set in 1979 and is produced by Spielberg that nearly everyone is comparing it to Spielberg’s two sf films. Super 8 is about as much a tribute or homage - or whatever other noun you want to give to it - to those two films, as it is to James Cameron’s The Abyss or Avatar. The way in which Super 8 dramatizes an alien encounter is very different. To put it very simply: E.T. and the gray aliens in C.E.O.T.T.K. are non-violent and the creature in Super 8 is most decidedly not!
The story of Super 8 centers on Joe Lamb, whose mother has died in a terrible accident. He is being brought up by his father, who as deputy-sheriff of small town Lillian Ohio, is unable to help his son through his grief. Summer vacation has arrived and Joe’s best friend Charles wants to spend it making a super 8 zombie film to enter into a local film festival. Charles’ film crew includes Cary, the pyromaniac special effects man, Martin, the leading man with a weak stomach and Preston the quiet jack-of-all-trades. Charles tells Joe that he has convinced Alice Dainard to play the wife of the detective in their film. They all sneak out at midnight to a local train station, with Alice driving them there in her dad’s car. While they are shooting, a train rumbles toward the station and crashes into a truck, that has parked itself on the tracks. The kids escape the carnage of the train wreck and quickly return to their homes before the authorities arrive at the scene of the crash. Charles is upset that his film has been ruined by the crash, but has the film developed to see if he can salvage any of the footage. Unknown to him, his super 8 camera has captured not only the crash, but a monstrous creature that escapes from a cargo car.
J. J. Abrams spends much of the first third of Super 8 developing the characters of the film; particularly Joe, his father, Alice and her father and the reasons for the terse relationship between these characters. Abrams also uses the making of Charles’ super 8 zombie film as a way of showing the gradual growth of the military presence in the small town, which begins with their recovery of all the evidence at the site of the train wreck. The creature that escapes from the train wreck is only seen very sporadically until the very end of the film and that makes the mystery of its origins and motivations for some of its questionable actions more intriguing. The script, written by director Abrams, is fairly intricate and complex for what could have been a straight forward monster movie. Abrams was as concerned with telling the story of the problems of the main characters, as he was in unfolding the mystery of the creature that appears to be attacking the small town.
There is a good balance of action and dramatic sequences in Super 8. Just when the action picks up and things are getting tense, the film returns to one or more of the characters' smaller problems that helps to put the overall situation in perspective. Super 8 works as both a humanistic drama and an action sci-fi film; blending the two elements fairly well. The film could have benefited with the addition of a little more humor, as some of the human drama bogs the film down at times.
If there is such a thing as Humanist Adventure SF, then J. J. Abrams has created it with his flair for using the structure of science fiction to demonstrate the positive potential of humanity. Although Abrams does commit to creating a truly menacing monster, he seems to be far more interested in the human story of a father and son who are dealing with the devastating loss of their wife/mother.
For my generation, Super 8 is a nice nostalgic trip to the late 70’s. I was one of those teenagers in the mid-late 70’s who filmed movies on Super 8 and the film does a nice job showing the passion and creativity of making these films. I do wonder how Charles’ could afford a sound camera, coming from a large family as he does, but that’s a minor quibble that only a super 8 geek like me would notice. I do wonder what younger viewers who were not even born in 1979 think of Super 8’s setting. I like to think that the kids of ’79 aren’t much different than the kids of ’11, but I fear that they might find this time period as alien as the late 40’s are to this child of the 60’s. I applaud Abrams for his artistic integrity to set Super 8 in the 70’s – obviously a time of his youth – because he might have had more commercial success with a contemporary setting.
One thing that Super 8 does, that most contemporary monster movies do not do, is that it delivers a positive message; especially at the end of the film. Some people may think that the end of Super 8 is unsatisfying, unrealistic or just plain anticlimactic. However, in the context of the human drama that leads up to it, the conclusion makes perfect sense. To the more cynical modern film goer, Super 8 may seem too traditional, but I found it a good blend of the modern sensibilities of current political and environmental tensions, with the slightly gentler and more understanding optimism of the past. Super 8 is humanist drama that uses a science fiction plot to deliver a message of hope to both the new youth and the more experienced generations of the past.
Monday, June 6, 2011
When I decided to rent Drive Angry from Netflix for a relaxing night of the old ultra-violence, I had no idea that this was a genre film. I was expecting an old style vengeance action flick and what I got was a Grindhouse-inspired supernatural action filk! If you like the recent Grindhouse influenced films by either Rodriguez or Tarantino, you will love director Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry!
Give my ten reasons to “drive angry” a spin!
Ten – Nic Cage as Milton - the vengeance-filled father, who will stop at nothing to save his granddaughter from a Satanic Cult that plans to sacrifice her - doesn’t overact for a single frame of Drive Angry.
Nine – Tom Atkins as “Cap”, the veteran character actor, who makes all of his small role as an Oaky state police Captain who goes after Milton for killing two fellow officers.
Eight – Amber Heard as Piper, the woman Milton gets a ride from, who wears a pair of “kick ass” jean-shorts through the first twenty-two minutes of Drive Angry and spends the rest of the movie kicking the ass of every stupid male that underestimates the blond beauty.
Seven – William Fitchner as “The Accountant”, who plays the single-minded FBI Agent hunting down Milton with cool zestful humor and violence in Drive Angry.
Six – One of the most over-the-top shootouts ever, where Milton is surrounded in a hotel room by armed men, while he is having sex with a barmaid; Milton shoots all the men all while holding his pistol in one hand, a bottle of whiskey in the other and staying “engaged” with the barmaid throughout!
Five – Milton fires his “old gun” at the false FBI agent while they are driving on a bridge and the agent calmly sits in the seat of the stolen cop car while it flies over the side of the bridge and goes crashing to the ground!
Four – The awesome soundtrack by Composer Michael Wandmacher - who plays all the instruments that includes guitars, cello, electric cello, dulcimers, banjo, guitarviol, and piano - this score is nonstop action led by powerful guitar riffs, an impressive rhythm section and fits the angry violent mood of Drive Angry to perfection!
Three – A fantastic fight scene between Piper and Jonah King - the cult leader who has Milton’s granddaughter – in the back of a moving Winnebago, that climaxes in her jumping out the back window and landing on the hood of her car being driven by Milton!
Two – Delicious dialogue like this between Milton and Piper - Piper: Gimme one good reason I shouldn't shoot you in the face. Milton: I'm driving. Piper: You know what I mean!
One – The fact that this is a grindhouse-style supernatural action flick, that goes light on the exposition and heavy on the harm, honeys and hotrods!
Pour yourself a tall frosty beverage and sit back for a fast fun ride with Drive Angry!
Sunday, June 5, 2011
It has been a wicked long time since the freaky one - yours truly - has listened to his favorite podcast, Slice of SciFi, on the Internets. Believe it or not, winter has finally split from New England and I’ve been out cleaning up the mess outside around the old laboratory. Unlike Zombzany, who has his zombie minions to maintain his cemetery, I have to do all the dirty work myself. Long story short: I haven’t spent as much time with my favorite Internet programs or podcasts, because I’ve been outside.
Much to my surprise, one of Slice of SciFi’s more recent podcasts had an interview with Cassandra Peterson; more famously known as Elvira! The Slicers didn’t know a whole lot about her newest version of Elvira’s Movie Macabre and Cassandra even joked a bit about that; mentioning that was because Movie Macabre was running on TV in their area at 3 AM. Here is a link to Slice of SciFi, episode #316 with the interview with Cassandra Peterson:
http://www.sliceofscifi.com/2011/05/21/slice-of-scifi-316/ If you want to skip ahead, her interview begins at the 31:40 mark.
For those wondering why you haven’t been able to watch Elvira’s Movie Macabre, you can check out the listings of all the affiliates that carry THIS TV in the United States on my post here: