Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2013

Dark Skies

'The invasion already happened'

Dark Skies is a passable, if uninspired, extraterrestrial thriller

Dark Skies
Dimension Films
Director: Scott Stewart
Screenplay: Scott Stewart
Starring: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, L.J. Benet and J.K. Simmons
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Opened February 22, 2013
(out of four)

Dark Skies is just good enough to make you wish it were a whole lot better. If that makes sense. Sometimes you see a mediocre movie and you just figure, "Meh, that's the way it goes. I couldn't have expected much better." But when a movie like this is almost good, you tend to wonder what might have been.

What seems to be missing here is any form of genuine inspiration, though admittedly that's a vague criticism. What I mean is, while this is a thoroughly competent entry in the visitation/abduction canon, there's nothing especially idiosyncratic about it, either. I'm not unhappy I saw it, but I'll probably never watch it again. It's like a standard episode of The Twilight Zone (or something like it), efficiently executed but not really worth revisiting. (Even the title sounds more like a supernatural anthology series than a movie, doesn't it?) (In fact, as I just found out, this was the title of a short-lived sci-fi series back in the '90s.)

Howard Hawks said the key to a good movie was three great scenes and no bad ones. Maybe I'm forgetting something, but I don't remember any conspicuously bad scenes in Dark Skies - but I don't recall any great ones, either. Several good scenes and a few really chilling individual moments, but no major sequences that stand out.

I was impressed by writer/director Scott Stewart's strategy, which is to build slowly and, even when it becomes clear what's happening, offer very little footage of the beings tormenting the suburban family at the heart of the story. Their first appearance is a remarkable piece of timing and composition on Stewart's part, and probably the best moment in the film - in large part because of how suddenly it happens and how suddenly the moment is gone.

The aliens - or "greys," as we come to discover they're called, thanks to a handy abduction expert played by J.K. Simmons - make a few other appearances, and Stewart shoots them in largely the same way. He catches them in darkness and shadow; they're little more than silhouettes, and they make for a great visual. I've gotta give Stewart credit for taking the lead from the great thrillers and monster movies that only rarely gave us a good look at the terror in question (Ridley Scott's Alien being a prime example).

Dark Skies plays out like a small-scale Knowing (Alex Proyas' underrated apocalyptic thriller from 2009), with a series of strange occurrences and visitations affecting the Barrett family, in particular the children, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and his younger brother Sam (Kadan Rockett). It's unclear who they are, what they want, or what their ultimate intentions are, but they've begun to make their presence felt in the household, much to the consternation of Lacy (Keri Russell*) and her whiny husband Daniel (Josh Hamilton).

*As a dedicated viewer of FX's excellent series The Americans, I kept having to remind myself, during all the typical suburban moments, that Keri Russell was not, in fact, a highly trained Russian spy.

At first it seems like a series of curious break-ins. Then the parents begin to suspect one of the kids is sleepwalking, or perhaps going through a more serious behavioral/psychological issue. They think about getting a therapist involved.

The police are no help. Nor is the family's high-tech security system. And when hundreds of birds, from three different flocks, suddenly fly into their house one day, it raises more questions than answers. Everyone in the family, one by one, experiences some sort of strange catatonic episode. They black out. Strange marks start appearing on their bodies. The neighbors begin to talk.

All of this eventually leads to the scene we've been waiting for the whole time - that's right, you know it, the bane of the modern thriller's existence, the one, the only . . . the Google search scene! Yes, the unexplained occurrences eventually push Lacy to the Internet, where she is able to conveniently push through a half-hour's worth of story-building with two minutes of Googling, leading her to the door of Edwin Pollard (Simmons).

What I liked about even the film's late scenes - when so many similarly themed movies go off the rails - is the way it considers hopelessness as a real possibility. There's a genuine sadness that sets in as we see Pollard's wall covered with clippings of missing children abducted over the years - children who never returned. The film isn't simply using its extraterrestrial setup as a plot device - it actually seems to care about the toll such an event has on the Barrett family, and all the families who came before them.

That said, there's something inherently dumb about the way Lacy and Daniel choose to defend themselves in the third act, and this is indeed the film's biggest misstep. But even so, it survives the contrivance as well as it can, and even takes an intriguingly enigmatic approach to its climactic moments.

Dark Skies may not do enough to really set itself apart, but what it does, it actually doesn't do badly. It surprised me a bit. If nothing else, it makes for a solid it's-2:30-in-the-morning-and-I-can't-sleep movie. That's not such a bad thing to be.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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