Director Scott Stewart says of Dark Skies, “I wanted to take a microcosmic view of the typical alien invasion story. Instead of a large scale global event that we usually see in films, Dark Skies centers around only one family and the neighborhood in which they live.”
You could be forgiven for thinking Stewart somehow missed M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, because once you see Dark Skies, it’s clear that there are a lot of movies he either hasn’t seen, or doesn’t mind cribbing from like he came up with the idea himself. Like, after four Paranormal Activity films, you cannot do a bit where the family rigs up their entire house with cameras that occasionally catch creepy hints of things. Not without some irony or knowingness, anyway. Also, showing a kid swinging on a swing in slow-motion is overused shorthand for “something creepy’s about to invade this normalcy.” And this last one may be just me, but it gets awfully tiresome to have scary movies in which the whole mystery could be solved in half a fucking hour if the main couple’s creepy kid would communicate like a normal human being.
Dark Skies doesn’t suck, but nor is it particularly worth your time and money. That’s the bottom line. But if you’re interested anyway, and don’t trust my snap judgments – why should you? – it falls upon me to explain why this is.
Okay, aside from the stupid swing-in-slo-mo bit, things start off rather well. Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton) are a nice couple, good-looking but not excessively movie-pretty. She works as a realtor, and he’s desperate to find another job so the family doesn’t go broke. They have two sons – Jesse (Real Steel’s Dakota Goya) is a budding delinquent being led down the wrong path by his older, hornier, pot-headier best friend; Sam (Kadan Rockett) is scary as hell, a soft-talking creature with huge eyes whom I’d be more afraid to have in my house than gray aliens any day. This is one of the film’s failings for me as a viewer – I want that kid out of the house, so how can I be frightened that aliens might remove him accordingly?
No a whole lot happens at first. Lacy goes up and down the stairs at night and the camera follows her, clearly establishing the geography of the house without being too in-your-face about it. We’ll leave aside for now whether that’s actually the best choice – Rosemary’s Baby, an all-time fave of mine, deliberately makes it almost impossible to figure out the layout of Rosemary’s apartment – point is, Stewart wants you to know by film’s end where each character in peril is in relation to the others. So he sets it up slowly.
And then things start happening, gradually. Vegetables get tossed out of the fridge as if by a wild animal. Cans are stacked in odd ways that make crop-circle-esque patterns. Sam starts having weird space-out episodes where he sleepwalks and loses track of time. Flocks of birds do a massive kamikaze run into the house. For some reason, the movie feels it important to point out that this is all happening around the Fourth of July; as best I can tell, that’s an in-joke homage to Independence Day, because it doesn’t appear to have any other larger meaning.
Many of these individual scares work, but they don’t add up, which is an issue casually brushed over by having J.K. Simmons show up as an Art Bell type to explain that lab rats also don’t understand what scientists are doing. That may be, and I’d be more forgiving if I thought the screenwriters had a clue what the master plan is. Basically, the aliens really like to fuck with people, busting into their houses, eating their vegetables, carefully removing photos from frames, rearranging the cans, guiding crazy birds into the windows and telling the kids scary stories…all so they can just end up abducting the first kid they made contact with anyway?
It’s a great moment when the Barrett family ask which of their alarm sensors was tripped, and the response is, “all of them.” It’s a less great moment when the same Barretts, having been told they must stick together, pointedly split up when they know the monsters are coming back. There’s a twisted sequence towards the very end that’s so out there and unexpected that it genuinely unsettles and pleasantly surprises, but then things come back around to the nonsense of the master plan of the invaders, such as it is (or isn’t).
Props for the family being second-generation geeks, though – one of young Sam’s toys is a vintage ’80s Masters of the Universe Stridor. That thing hasn’t been available in decades, so it can only have been a hand-me-down.