DARK SKIES (2013) dir. Scott Stewart

Director: Scott Stewart
Producer: Jason Blum
Writer: Scott Stewart
Starring: Dakota Goyo, Josh Hamilton, Keri Russell

DARK SKIES (2013) is a tale of invasion and abduction, our response at WILDERNESS to a Twitter poll we conducted. You, our readers, voted that the blog needs more aliens … and DARK SKIES was our response to that request. (We also tried to choose something current, as our reviews on horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s interest only a specific niche … but next time we do aliens, we’ll probably go a liiiiittle less current and screen  1993’s similarly titled FIRE IN THE SKY.) DARK SKIES, if updated, contains all of the familiar trappings of alien conspiracy (birds falling from the sky, lost time, cryptic circular symbols), as well as familiar horror motifs (the use of home surveillance footage, printouts of internet research bandied about as evidence, shadowy figures and mysterious injuries), a tale both heavily steeped in the traditional and modern.

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Image courtesy of Scott Stewart, David Boyd.

Brothers Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sammy (Kadan Rockett) have an evening tradition: every night, they each pull out a walkie-talkie and Jesse reads to his younger brother from Stories from the Shadows, a volume of scary stories. Sammy is particularly struck by the Sandman, who creeps into children’s homes to put them to sleep and steal their eyes. There is something familiar to him in the Sandman … he has materialized in Sammy’s drawings, his nightmares, and most troubling, his bedroom. When Jesse’s and Sammy’s parents, Daniel (Josh Hamilton) and Lacy (Keri Russell), begin to notice evidence of nighttime intrusions in their home, they too recognize something sinister at work.

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Jesse (Dakota Goyo) reads to his brother, walkie-talkie and flashlight in hand. (Image courtesy of Scott Stewart, David Boyd.)

Evidence of the home invasions includes the stacking and arranging of kitchen items so that they project geometric shapes onto the ceiling—a suburban adaptation of crop circles, it seems. The Barretts’ upper-middle class suburban surroundings shape their encounters, emphasizing by contrast the uncanniness of unsettlingly man-like alien beings. The familiar takes the form of the home, much like in hauntings. This is the space that is chiefly invaded, of course—and, with it, the nuclear family within—and Lacy is a realtor, peddling the familiar to others as well. The home they live in is lush, high-tech (flat screen televisions and iPhones abound) and giant, filled with sprawling, airy rooms. They are clearly in the midst of the Californian upper-class suburb that is the setting of many a current horror film, uniform and subtly unique in its luxuries, all at once. As we know, the trick lies in this dichotomy—the American family should distinguish itself, reifying the necessity of individualism, but it should not stand apart. When the film begins, the Barretts are already struggling to maintain this balance—Daniel has been laid off, risking the ideal lifestyle that they must keep up in order to properly fit into the neighborhood and, as a result, marital trouble bubbles just below the surface. Naturally, as the film goes on, the alien invasion chips away at the Barretts’ façade of normalcy and, as more and more slips through the cracks, their social standing approaches a tipping point. (Noticeably, at the film’s end, the family has relocated—suggesting that they ultimately failed to adjust to the crisis sufficiently to be able to remain.)

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Lacy (Keri Russell) opens the door to find another disapproving neighbor, exemplifying how much has changed for the Barretts. (Image courtesy of Scott Stewart, David Boyd.)

It’s obvious why DARK SKIES hasn’t enjoyed the acclaim of other Blumhouse classics—it’s fairly forgettable, for a lot of reasons. First of all, the writing is so-so at best. Many viewers will be turned off within the first fifteen minutes of the film by how terrible the dialogue is. The parents exchange hokey clichés about their teenage son, Jesse (Arrrghh! He’s so difficult! Damn kids!) and, for his part, Jesse tells his parents on the phone to “take a chill pill.”

It’s bad.

Perhaps the dual challenge of visual excellence and literary adequacy was too tall an order for director Scott Stewart (LEGION [2010], SIN CITY [2005]). For instance, the script lacks a much-needed focus, with perhaps a half a dozen defining themes tossed in and abandoned. Is this film about masculinity, as Daniel’s struggle to find work and defend his family from invaders—on Independence Day, no less—suggests? It could be, but the theme is emphasized maybe twice: during Daniel’s search for a job, when he vents his frustrations on his car in the parking garage at one point, and on Independence Day, when he defends the family, shotgun in hand. Aside from those scenes, the exploration is abandoned. Could the film be about the strange, uncanny nature of adolescent growth? Maybe, except that Jesse doesn’t get the benefit of serious focus until the last quarter of the film—for the rest of it, his screen time is limited to half-baked scenes of an awkward first kiss and smoking pot with other teenagers—more clichéd shlock that the film could lose and be better for. I could go on, but there are a myriad of lazy dropped explorations just like these drizzled in with the rest of the story—enough that I had a wicked headache by the end of the movie just trying to keep track. It’s one thing to write a complex film that takes on several themes with intention and skill—this is not that. This is a poorly written first draft that could become that—and, truthfully, even though some films could potentially pull off so much thematic material, most filmmakers would focus on less and be more likely to succeed.

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The whole alien thing is inexplicably interrupted by a scene of Jesse’s first kiss with Shelly (Annie Thurman), a character who, it is suggested, is important to Jesse, but who we are not given the opportunity to know in any substantial way. Thread picked up, thread dropped. (Image courtesy of Scott Steward, David Boyd.)

I can also see why Jason Blum gave this baby the go-ahead, because DARK SKIES does deliver—as much as any PG-13 horror film does—what Blumhouse does best: scares, scares, scares. I jumped a couple of times, as one expects, startled by the shape of an alien bent over Sammy’s bed or the house’s security alarm system blaring, and that was fun, but perhaps the scariest and most gratifying part of the film is the Barretts’ visit to DARK SKIES’ resident “expert” figure, Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), who chills the room when he says (in response to Lacy asking why they’ve been targeted): “What answer would a lab rat understand from a scientist in a white coat putting electrodes in its brain, giving it cancer?” Brrrrr.

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The Barretts meet with extraterrestrial expert Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons, who puts on the best performance of the film in this short scene). (Image courtesy of Scott Stewart, David Boyd.)

In short, alien aficionados will likely be bored by DARK SKIES—for its general ordinariness and its straightforward repetition of tired clichés. (At one point, Daniel even turns to Lacy and says, in a deadpan impression of Scully: “I’m ready to believe.”) It’s not great, but it’s good enough in a lot of ways—entertaining, spooky, and mild enough to show to teenagers and softcore horror fans alike. Go in cynical and you’ll hate it—but go in accepting it for what it is and you might just have fun.

Gore: ★★

Horror: ★★★

Suspense: ★★★

Terror: ★★★★

Quality: ★★★

Overall: ★★★

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