Falling Skies – Paedophiles from Outer Space

Falling Skies is a SF-horror-family melodrama that is produced by Spielberg, which is supposed to be a positive recommendation but ends up being its greatest problem. The series concerns a world invaded by aliens in which a brave band of resistance fighters mount a spirited opposition to the enemy.

The hero is played by Noah Wyle, nice guy Carter from ER, who plays an ex-history professor, Tom Mason, who is second in command to Will Patton’s hard-bitten veteran, Captain Weaver. It is nice to see a positive representation of an arts and humanities academic these days, and the history professor bit is no accident: Mason’s main function seems to be to provide endless comparisons between the resistance to the aliens and the American Revolution, while also being the nice liberal family man. The result is often nauseatingly patriotic, particularly in a post-911 context.

However, the aliens are not really not British colonialists, nor ‘Islamic terrorists’, but rather paedophiles from outer space. It is not just that Wyle is a nice family man, who seems to spend as much time worrying about his kids as fighting the extra-terrestrial menace, but that the aliens are after our children. They slaughter the human adults but seem to have a  thing about the children. Instead of trying to wipe the child out, the aliens keep the kids alive in groups and spend huge amounts of time devising schemes to whisk the moppets away from their parents.

And once they have the little cherubs (these are Spielberg children), they penetrate them from behind – no, really! They have these things that most characters refer to as harnesses, which are attached to the children’s backs and control them. But they don’t look much like harnesses. Instead, they have tentacles that penetrate the flesh and fuse with the spinal cord.

Once penetrated by the harness, the kids are under the control of the aliens and even develop a bond with their abuser. At one level, this is identified as a kind of addiction, so that, if the harness is removed, the children go into shock and die, at least until a procedure is found to cure this problem. But even then some children still long to be back with the aliens and the feeling of ‘being loved’ that the aliens gave them, but that their parents seem to be incapable of providing. On the other hand, some children, such as Noah Wyle’s son, develop an extreme anger at their abusers, clearly suffering for a case of deep-seated guilt and self-disgust that manifests itself in a case of ‘protesting too much’.

Of course, most of this isn’t new. The parasite on the back is clearly a borrowing from stories that go back to Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, an alien invasion narrative that preceded Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Heinlein’s novel even has includes the victim’s sense of dependence upon its parasite; their suicidal responses to its removal; and even the traumatic guilt and self-disgust of some survivors.

But Heinlein’s aliens ride on the upper back, just below the neck and between the shoulder-blades, while the alien parasites in Falling Skies cover the entire length of the spine right down to … well, I will leave it to your imaginations. And Heinlein’s alien’s are slug-like creatures, while these aliens (while seeming to be biological-technological hybrids) look awfully like the insect creatures from Cronenberg’s film of the William Burroughs novel, The Naked Lunch, both of which have clear homosexual subtexts…

None the less, for all its neurotic concerns with children, and with paedophiles – let us just take a moment to remember that most victims of child abuse are victimized by close family members who profess to love and protect them and that ‘stranger danger’ is phenomenally rare – the series does have a lot going for it. Visually, it has a really gritty and realistic look that is quite at odd with the sugar-sweet sentiments elsewhere, and its also got a terrific cast. Noah Wyle is always a pleasure to watch, even if he is not terrifically well cast here, but Captain Weaver is played by Will Patton, who is a character actor that brings an air of gravitas to the proceedings, and (most of the time) even succeeds in undercutting the more annoying elements of the series. By season two, he does get to spend more time worrying about his own kids, but we also have a great appearance from one of my favorite television character actors, the truly wonderful, Terry O’Quinn. You know, John Locke, from Lost! God, I could write a whole entry on Terry O’Quinn, but as usual, he appears in a role that uses his rather odd ability to play characters that seems to be a nice, normal everymen but also suggest the menacing possibility of something dark and/or tyrannical underneath…. I will say no more. For now.

Season two also starts to complicate the aliens. It turns out that not all aliens are the same … surprisingly.

But the bad aliens still want our children …

I read somewhere that Falling Skies has been described as a cross between Jericho and V but I have to say that for all its gritty, end-of-the-world feel, this series is no Jericho. If you haven’t seen this tragically canceled series, do so immediately. And that is an order. It may not be strictly fantastic television – it carefully avoids any overt sf or horror trappings – but it is also a post-apocalypse epic, so I think I might do an entry on it. And there are no creepy aliens hanging around the playground in this one!

Next Week: Jericho: An Apocalypse of Biblical Proportions

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Moon of the Wolf (1972) – Stars, Location and Atmosphere

Given last week’s discussion of Barbara Rush, plus the revelation that my most visited post is Satan’s School for Girls (and with nearly twice as much interest as its nearest rival), I felt inspired to spend some time on Moon of the Wolf, another made-for-television horror film of the early 1970s.

It starts David Janssen, who was a titan of the made-for-television film and mini-series of the 1970s, until his death in 1980 at the age of 48. He had made his name as Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (in which Rush had made a notable appearance as a guest star), and he would also star in the detective series, Harry O, which I remember fondly and premiered on television the year after Moon of the Wolf. His tired, world-weary persona never really took off in cinema, but it proved irresistible to television.

He therefore starred in a whole series of things, although there are two mini-series that are particularly worthy of note. The first of which was Centennial (1978-1979), an absolute monster of the blockbuster television mini-series, which told the history of Colorado across two centuries and, in the process, had ambitions to being a microcosm of the American story. It even ends with major ecological questions about the future. In this monumental narrative, Janssen took the role of narrator, his gravelly voice acting as television’s ‘Voice of God’ in much the same way that Charlton Heston’s voice has come to operate in cinema.

The same year, he also became God’s voice (in a different way) in The Word (1978), a really interesting mini-series (and kind of television horror story), in which he is hired by publishers to check the veracity of a new set of biblical documents that seem to provide a first hand account of the Christ, and that might finally authenticate the story of Jesus. However, his investigations reveal a far more complex story that involves conspiracy and deceit, although his ‘truth’ is eventually rejected and the ‘fake’ documents are finally accepted as genuine. The effect seems to be no less than the creation of a new society based upon virtually universal faith; but also one that is as much a dystopia as a utopia, given that it is not only based on a lie but also on faith rather than doubt. Here, of course, Janssen’s persona is perfect for the final revelation and the whole story works around that familiar suggestion that it is the struggle with doubt that is ultimately meaningful and valuable, rather than blind or uncritical faith. The mini-series even implies that the ‘faith’ on which the new society is based is actually a kind of mindless conformity and the ends up feeling like something from a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or one of those Star Trek episodes where the crew of the Enterprise encounters a Utopia but decide that paradise must be destroyed in order to stop people wandering around in a blissful daze.

After discussing The Word, I am eager to re-see it and wish I was writing about that, rather than Moon of the Wolf, which really isn’t that great, although it certainly has its pleasures.

Anyhow, the story involves a body that is found badly mauled and the local sheriff (Janssen) starts to investigate. As suspects start to emerge, the nature of the attack looks increasingly strange and anyone in the audience who has any familiarity with this kind of thing soon begins to catch on (if the title hadn’t already alerted them) that a werewolf is on the loose. But who is it? Suspicion is directed at various characters, although the brother and sister of a wealthy, local family seem to be central to events. This couple is played by Bradford Dillman and – you guessed it – Barbara Rush.

Also, Rush and Janssen’s characters clearly have chemistry in the story, and one of the nice thing about 1970s television was that, unlike the cinema of the period, it was happy to provide roles for women like Rush who was in her mid-1940s at the time, roles in which they were not only leading ladies but were also supposed to be sexual beings with a past.

There isn’t a lot else to say about the plot, without giving the game away, but I should probably add that the creature effects are predictably awful (which never put me off a monster movie) and that the local color is excellent. Rather than simply being filmed in LA on studio lots, it uses a lot of Louisiana locations that give the rather slight story a considerable sense of atmosphere. Yes, there is a noticeable absence of explicit gore but that wasn’t what made-for-television horror films were all about. They excelled in atmosphere and suspense, qualities that are central to most of the classics of the type: Duel, The Night Stalker, etc.

And it is this quality that the stars also bring to the film. Janssen was capable of drenching a story with atmosphere without appearing to doing anything – not talking, moving, or anything at all. Similarly, Bradford Dillman is a fantastic character actor who was everywhere in the 1970s (he even ends up in Joe Dante’s wonderful Piranha)  but has never seemed to get the credit that he deserves. He seems to have a permanent aura of self-disgust born of corruption or compromise, an aura that works perfectly in this story. Oh, and Barbara proves fascinating, too – obviously – and she conveys a peculiar mixture strength and vulnerability (or should I say fragility). After my last entry, Kevin Heffernan (author of the wonderful Ghouls, Gimmick, and Gold) rightly observed on facebook that Rush ‘is a *huge* part of why Nick Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE works as beautifully as it does. Her quiet, terrified defiance of steroid-crazed patriarch James Mason is what keeps the film from tipping over into bathos and unintentional comedy’. He is absolutely right, and I love that phrase: ‘quiet, terrified defiance’. Anyhow, it is a similar balance of conflicting elements that makes her perfect for this story, too, so that it remains uncertain, right up until the final revelation, whether she is a potential monster or victim.

So, Hour of the Wolf is certainly no masterpiece but I have to recommend it for its sense of atmospherics, atmospherics that are largely due to its careful use of locations and its casting (in addition to the three main actors mentioned, the film is packed full of other great character actors).