Written and Directed by: Scott Stewart
Starring: Keri Russell, Jake Brennan, Josh Hamilton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Once you've been chosen, you belong to them.
The latest low budget venture from Blumhouse Productions might be cobbled together from the studioís most recent hits, but itís done in the service of a concept we havenít seen a whole lot of lately: the alien invasion horror film. While extraterrestrials were a genre staple during the height of UFO hysteria, they were co-opted for blockbuster action flicks somewhere along the way (I mostly blame Roland Emmerich for this and many other things). Since then, horrorís mostly been left with scraps of pod people and body snatcher riffs, so itís nice to see a low-key, suspenseful take on alien visitors even if Dark Skies isnít nearly a definitive one.
Lacy and Daniel Barrett (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) have settled into a suburbanite lifestyle thatís started to fray at the seems a bit; even though theyíve got a nice house and two well-adjusted boys, Danielís recent job loss has led to some dire financial straits. Even worse, the oldest boy, Jesse (Dakota Goyo), has been hanging out with an older kid thatís suspected to be a bad influence. But even that pales in comparison to the strange disturbances that begin to haunt the family on a nightly basis; the events start innocuously (some alarms go off, the kitchen is wrecked, etc.) but soon escalate to malicious levels when itís apparent that the family has been targeted by alien visitors.
Itís easy to see the concept here, and itís basically Blumhouseís Greatest Hitsóyouíve got a dash of Insidious (complete with some creepy, possessed kid bits) and a healthy dose of the Paranormal Activity formula (thereís even a sequence where Daniel installs a bunch of cameras and plays the footage back) which get lightly stirred together into something that still feels overly familiar despite the extraterrestrial twist. Much of its familiarity is owed to director Scott Stewartís clumsy handling of the material and his refusal to interject any sort of personality into the film; for much of its running time, Dark Skies is too content to recycle the same old beats to the point of nigh anonymityóthis could very well be just another demonic possession or haunted house movie until the film finally gives up the ghost (which is actually an alien in this case, I guess). Stewart also takes the leisurely pacing of these films to an extreme; while this is preferable to sprinting right out of the gate and tripping all over oneself, Dark Skies just sort of lopes along without much urgency. Some food is spilled onto the floor. The aliens play their version of a prank by assembling stuff around the house into an elaborate structure (which the Barretts apparently dismantle before the cops arriveóhuh?). Some streetlights ominously lose power, which could just as easily be shitty service from the local co-op.
Once Dark Skies shows some signs of life (and J.K. Simmons shows up to deliver the exposition), it also decides to lean in on the family drama. Even though the parents endure their own fair share of bizarre episodes, the kids become the obvious target. The younger of the two seems especially vulnerable and is the center of the filmís few memorable moments (thereís a bedroom money shot that recall the nightmarish imagery associated with the Slenderman); meanwhile, the older one is just entering that teenage angst phase and awkwardly attempts to hook up with girls during some of the filmís more extraneous bits. Between the two of them, their parents are driven sufficiently nuts, particularly the dad, who (of course) aggravates the situation by refusing to believe in the alien menace until itís too late. All the while, Dark Skies flirts around the edges of M. Night Shyamalanís Signs until the climax makes it obvious, right down to a dinner scene that almost shamelessly recalls it. In a lot of ways, this feels like a direct-to-video rip-off of that film that arrived a decade too late, and thereís even a bit of twist (albeit a woefully telegraphed one).
Conceptually, Dark Skies canít boast a ton of originality or ingenuity, but itís solidly constructed. Stewartís presence probably doesnít inspire a lot of confidence after the likes of Legion and Priest, but this proves that smaller scale stuff might be more his speed. He coaxes some serviceable performances out of everyone, particularly Keri Russell; itís a little disconcerting to see her slipping into the middle-age mom roles (was Felicity really over a decade ago?), sheís a strong anchor in Dark Skies. The film might not be exactly set up like a found footage movie, but it operates similarly since the sparse plot and parceled scares require the characters to carry things a bit. In this respect, Stewart takes the correct approach; whereas a lot of haunted house flicks rely more on set pieces and sequences, this one feels like itís going for an equal mix of character drama and spook show. The problem is that it might actually veer too much towards the former since itís a little dry as an outright horror movie; in fact, Stewart shows so much restraint and reverence for the fear of the unknown that the aliens get less than a minute of screen time.
I like the idea behind Dark Skies more than Dark Skies itself, which isnít necessarily the worst I can say about a movie. More than anything, itís a reminder that we still need a truly great, post-Fire in the Sky* film in this mold, and it actually stirs memories of one of cinemaís biggest missed opportunities: Night Skies, the alien-horror movie Steven Spielberg proposed after Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film was eventually aborted but found new life as both E.T. and Poltergeist, and it seems appropriate that Dark Skies seems to contain an obvious reference to the latter (the token familial tension also seems like a half-hearted callback to Spielberg as well). After all, this latest horror phase (can we unofficially dub it the Blumhouse Phase?) owes a lot to Hooper and Spielbergís film, so Dark Skies kind of brings it full circle as a love letter to both that film and another one that never was. Maybe itís not the most flattering of tributes, but sometimes itís the thought that counts. Rent it!
*I'm admittedly basing this on some hazy, nightmarish memories of watching that one on cable about twenty years ago, so forgive me if those abduction scenes aren't really that scary when you aren't ten.
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