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Exclusive: Script review of Falling Skies, Steven Spielberg's alien invasion TV pilot
Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Thursday, March 18, 2010
In May 2009 the news broke that Steven Spielberg was collaborating again with the screenwriter of Saving Private Ryan, Robert Rodat, on a television pilot for TNT. As is the case for most of the concepts that attract Spielberg, this one was high concept: what would life be like for a group of survivors-turned-fighters in the aftermath of an all-out alien invasion of Earth? Now, nearly one year after the first announcement of this project Coming Attractions gives you the first look at what this still-untitled alien invasion pilot is shaping up to look like.
Rodat was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for his work on Saving Private Ryan. He also penned the Mel Gibson picture The Patriot which had one very intense action moment that played heavily on human emotion, specifically Gibson's character earning his vengeance against British troops for killing his young son. Needless to say the idea of Rodat co-developing (with Spielberg) and writing the alien invasion pilot script is damn interesting because of the way the writer uses war and battle to uncover raw human emotions. And let's face it, if there's a sub-genre that could do with adding some depth to its worn-out concept it's the idea of Earth being attacked by hostile E.T.s. For every War of the Worlds (the H.G. Wells' original) that manages to balance the horror of apocalyptic destruction wrought by aliens there's ten Independence Day movies and TV shows where humans defeat their cosmic enemies and share stogies with each other by the end of the film.
After reading the pilot script for the proposed TV series, now I know that Rodat's script won't be another ID4. If you want the feel of his world in a nutshell, imagine the post-apocalyptic devastated future scenes from the original Terminator film as the setting. The Independence Day motherships came and destroyed cities, switched off everything electronic and killed millions in their first wave of attack. When Rodat's screenplay starts, all that went down seven months ago. At least Kyle Reese and his war weary future survivors had John Connor's resistence going for them in their war with the machines. In Rodat's vision of the day after Independence Day, civilization is on the brink of collapse and there doesn't appear to be any time paradox spawned messiah or Will Smith/Jeff Goldblum heroics on the horizon. Humanity's future is being written in blood and there aren't too many pages left in the story.
It's hard to classify Tom Mason, the character that ER's Noah Wylie is slated to play, as the story's hero. He's certainly the pilot's protagonist, its central character, but every character in Rodat's tight, 45-page pilot can be called a hero to some degree because they're fighting for their lives. When you meet Tom in the script, he's like everyone else encountered in the pilot; functioning moment to moment, resisting as hard as he can against the alien invaders, fighting a guerilla war with what little weaponry he has available. Counting the dead. Running for his life when enemy reinforcements arrive. Reporting back to his superiors what the losses were in every encounter with the enemy. Using minimal words because it's an effort to just survive, stay alive, find food and stay sane when the world you and your children lived in a year ago is totally gone.
Let me back up here and start right at the beginning of this story because the way Rodat chooses to introduce you to this world is pretty great. You've seen dozens of movies where the alien saucers arrive and start to blast everything away but like I said earlier, what you haven't seen much of is the more likely fallout that comes after the bombs have been dropped and the survivors left behind have to mentally compartmentalize the horror if they want to remain alive. In the first five minutes of Rodat's script there's not one special effect shot, no quick scene of the alien motherships arriving to our planet and no lasers blasting apart famous landmarks. Instead, we hear the voice of a few of the children in Tom's camp talking about their worst fears to Anne Glass, another survivor who was a therapist in her former life. She's trying to give what medical and emotional help she can to these kids, some of whom don't have any surviving family. Through the use of voiceover and from the pictures that these little kids have drawn on the scraps of paper they can find around them, we find out what happened at the beginning when the ships arrived and the world watched to see what kind of first contact would take place. We see the kids' drawings of three gigantic spaceships, of the firestorms that later took place soon after, of the dead bodies they saw that were their neighbors, schoolmates and relatives. Of the monsters that emerged from the spaceships. And then there are drawings of the people that the children are now living with, the survivors that are fighting back with guns and explosive charges and anything else that can hurt or kill the invaders. It's a powerful opening and in just five minutes you know everything that you need to know about what this series is going to be about.
Yeah, the aliens. If you're wondering what they look like I don't know any more than you. Rodat doesn't choose to describe them any further than they're different than us. I suppose that Zoic Studios and the effects team will show us what they've got when the first commercials for this show hit TNT sometime this year but in the script it's left intentionally blank. That non-description serves the atmosphere of the story well because while we'll get to see what the aliens look like in the battles that take place, none of our characters knows anything about who the attackers are or why they've come to Earth. The big motherships have gone but there are plenty of smaller ships and ground forces everywhere in the remains of Boston, the location of the show. The aliens are building something in the city center but no one knows what it is. No one knows where the big motherships have gone, if they're in orbit or on the other side of the planet. And it doesn't matter because the aliens are hunting down the pockets of humans still living in Boston, flushing them out and killing the adults. Sometimes, if the odds are in their favor, the aliens will take the children alive and harness them. No one knows what the harness is for, but if you can rescue back a child who has been harnessed, when you go to remove the device it will kill the child. Everyone has seen that happen. It hangs in the air whenever Tom or any adult has to make a decision that might risk one of the younger survivors coming into contact with the aliens.
And that's another groovy thing about this pilot. Along with the sense that this show has more in common with what we've seen of urban warfare on the news is a powerful, unstated visual message: half of the fighters in Tom's group are kids ranging in age from pre-teen to young adult men and women. There are several characters introduced of different ages and all of them are armed and seen in action throughout the show. Tom and the adults in the other resistance groups know what will happen to the kids if they get captured and harnessed but it's not like there's a choice; if you're old enough to fire a gun, you're a soldier. The enemy doesn't recognize innocents and so the surviving people left can't afford to either. This collection of grown-ups and kids adds to the stark nature of the storytelling. You've seen child soldiers in news footage from the Congo or Palestine. Now imagine the kids in your all-American neighborhood with that same thousand yard look in their faces, dirty and scraped up, carrying an automatic rifle in their arms.
After reading how badly the aftermath of an alien invasion story can be told it's so good to see how a different writer can take the exact same concept and tell it in a gripping, interesting and much better way. This pilot episode, titled "Live and Learn", is hard and dramatic and has good moments of action and tension. This introduction of Tom, Anne, the other survivors and their world opens the door for a lot of potential storylines for Rodat, Spielberg and theshow's creative team to chase down. By deconstructing a worn-out sci-fi premise and by treating it with deadly seriousness, Rodat instills freshness into the concept. Along with AMC's Walking Dead pilot, TNT's untitled alien invasion show left me wanting more.
A year from now television may be the place to see the best genre entertainment. Bring it on TNT. Let's get this show in the can and scheduled for broadcast.