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.
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
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
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
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.