From existential approaches like Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire to the blatantly comical Michael and aggressively action-packed Legion, Christianity's fallen angels have seen an array of hard-and-fast depictions in Hollywood. Just mentioning the two latter films brings up wildly different depictions of the archangel Michael, one of a lithe gun-toting ruffian and the other of a semi-portly, pie-munching, woman-loving card. Usually, the fallen angel idea gets tossed in without dipping its toes too deep into extended mythology, whether out of fear of heavy-handedness or of treading on zealot's toes. Fallen, a three-part TV miniseries loosely adapted from Tom E. Sniegoski's young adult books, isn't as timid; it takes the concepts of warrior angels, redemption, and ordained purification and wraps them around a coming-of-age story. And it's surprisingly decent, when it's not wading in excessive, poorly-paced exposition.
Each part of Fallen begins with a collage of Biblical sketches, with narration that tells the legend of fallen angels. It revolves around the flood and a need to cleanse the world of half-angel / half-human abominations called Nephilims, where commanding angel soldiers called "Powers" purge the world of them. After this info download, we're then taken to modern times in middle-of-nowhere USA, where a troubled teenage orphan named Aaron -- Paul Wesley of The Vampire Diaries -- has spent the past three years with his foster family. He's happy here, with parents eager to celebrate his 18th birthday and a school where he's found popularity as a wrestling star, and he's been able to control some violent urges that plagued his past. On his birthday, things turn sour; Aaron starts suffering from intense headaches, begins hearing his dog Gabe's thoughts, and speaks other languages he's never heard, which take away from his academic studies and his budding relationship with cutie Vilma (Fernanda Andrade).
Aaron's discovery, where he learns that he's a Nephilim from a disguised street bum named "Zeke" (Tom Skerritt), makes Part One of Fallen -- "The Beginning" -- feel like a take on Spider-man or Smallville with a neo-religious slant. As his headaches intensify and the voices around him encroach further, it's hard not to think of similar superhero origin stories once he's stumbling into lockers and getting into fistfights against bullies. Rome and Band of Brothers director Mikael Salomon (also cinematographer of The Abyss) liberally uses shaky-cam and quick-zoom shots to heighten Aaron's wobbly mental state, somewhat redundant with Paul Wesley's clammy, astute performance doing that already. Admirably, "The Beginning" veers away from the easy route towards overblown angst, building Aaron's confusion without thrashing him about with too much abandon.
Fallen's storytelling draw -- especially in the second and third parts, "The Journey" and "The Destiny" -- comes in Aaron's place as The Redeemer, a distinction that allows him to absolve deserving or undeserving fallen angels of their sins and send them back to Heaven. The story's origin pulls influence from Christian and Hebrew mythology, planting archangel Camael (Rick Worthy) in the fray as Aaron's protector against Seraphs armed with flaming swords, while talk of "The Creator" and his/her floods and holy purging fills out the dialogue. Yet Fallen doesn't preach any messages about redemption or attempt to ape other heavy-handed salvation films like Left Behind, even if a level of belief is still a prerequisite; instead, think of it more like an angel-centered spin on The Matrix seen through a creationist's eyes, complete with a scattering of hand-to-hand square-offs and low-fi effects in the vein of a SyFy original movie (the flaming swords look great for a minuscule budget). Fallen knows what audience it gears towards, yet it's handled with a tempered spiritual edge that actually makes it moderately accessible to the non-devout.
Though it might overcome the trepidation some might have over watching a production about angels, redemption, and "The Creator", Fallen's rhythm as a story has its own share of problems. The second and third installments, which pick up a year later with Aaron and Camael on the run from The Powers (while they also aired a year after the "original movie"), reveal two glaring flaws that radically weaken its appeal: the overall length of the series, and the pacing issues that result. As it introduces us to the mojo-driven rogue Azazel (Hal Ozsan) while honing in on Aaron's torment as a 19-year-old guy without a life outside of his Redeemer duties, the storytelling hits a lull due to sparse activity and a sluggish eye for editing. Aaron's cross-country travels in a car and treks up mountains are made into lengthy, dormant quests with little action that rely on the exposition-heavy discussion between his compatriots, and the intrigue of their conversation isn't enough to mask the need for slimmer length. Somewhere in between the three parts, there's a decent two-hour made-for-TV movie that could hit all the same points; at well over four hours, it's simply too long to hold interest.
Fallen still presses on with an approachable charm though, largely due to a better-than-expected cast. Of course it's an opportunity to see Paul Wesley pre-Stefan, and fans of The Vampire Diaries know that he delivers conflicted mythical beings with straight-faced legitimacy. Watching him as Aaron shows off more than a few flashes of the talent he utilizes in his stardom-elevating role, complete with conflict over his other-worldliness and a sense of resolve that comes after the bewilderment subsides. But the supporting cast really propels the series; Battlestar Galactica's Rick Worthy delivers the "traitor" archangel Camael with his signature statuesque disposition, tortured eyes and booming voice, while Hal Ozsan's Azazel reminds one of his sardonic film director from Dawson's Creek. Brilliant character actor Rade Serbedzija works his wily charms as a college-level theology teacher with a secret, while Ty Olsson offers a fierce character that veers from his affable Defying Gravity and BSG roles. It's also hard not to like Fernanda Andrade's poise as Vilma, especially when her true connection to Aaron comes to light.
The slog through the rest of Fallen earns justification within its climax, roughly the last forty-five minutes or so, which creates a definitive point to everything that's happened. See, Aaron's been plagued with dreams about a bright-red, violent place with an eerie figure off in the distance, and it doesn't really take a rocket scientist to figure out what place, and what figure, he's been imagining. This cloaked, ominous being is played by none other than Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad, within a gory, grim, arid locale that's heavily reminiscent of the moody set design in Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan. We eventually learn why Aaron's been dreaming of this place, gracefully arriving at a solution to the puzzle that's been strategically structured -- perhaps a little too much so -- throughout the miniseries. Quite frankly, the whole she-bang's almost worth it for the conversation between Aaron and Cranston's character in this location alone.
Video and Audio:
Fallen offers an interesting visual experience on Blu-ray, as the 1.78:1-framed high-definition transfer sports attributes that would befit both digital- and film-based presentations. The crispness of the photography readily makes itself visible among a slew of close-ups and intriguing plays on depth of field, rendering natural skin tones and sharp detail when needed. Yet there's also a smoothness about some of the skin textures and backdrops that suggests a digital source, though the scant white blips against the print suggests otherwise. It might sound strange, but that's actually a good thing; the disc left me boggled on more than one occasion as to whether this source was digital or from film, though it never looks over-processed or anything. For a a sub-$20 list price Blu-ray, it delivers.
Audio arrives in a Uncompressed 2.0 Stereo track, and it's about as satisfactory as you'd expect from a production of this age relegated to a 2-channel stereo track. Audio arrives clearly and audibly, but not as dynamic as most other productions of the same era. You'll hear the dialogue ring through tried-and-true, with Rick Worthy's vocals flickering against the lower-frequency channel and a few other elements -- flickering of fire, the rumble of Hades, and others -- testing the expanses of a two-channel stereo track. It sounds fine, for its limitations, but nothing terribly of note.
Aside from a standard Interview with Paul Wesley (4:05, SD) and a Trailer (1:35), nothing else accompanies this release.
It's worth giving Fallen a chance for Paul Wesley's talent embedded within a semi-exciting angel-based narrative, accompanied by subtle-but-slick effects and a buoyant-enough story. Though rough around the edges and much too long, it's worth a Rental to absorb the neo-religious, accessible story and the scattering of intrigue that it offers.