December 11, 2013
Dark Skies: new aliens on the block
Good home-invasion horror drawing heavily from classic films
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” (Arthur C. Clarke).
In Scott Stewarts’s deft horror film Dark Skies, the second possibility applies. This is the story of a suburban, middle-class family that is progressively endangered by mysterious, malevolent beings that unleash heavy supernatural phenomena until the family can only bond together and fight back as hard as possible.
Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel Barrett (Josh Hamilton) are a married couple who lives in Arizona with their two children, Sam (Kadan Rockett) and Jesse (Dakota Goyo). Daniel is an out of work architect who’s having a hard time at finding a new job. Lacy is a real-estate agent trying to sell an awful house. Worst of all, she’s too honest to talk potential buyers into purchasing it. They make a great couple and are protective and caring. As for the kids, they are doing all right. Sam, the youngest one, is about eight, cute and easygoing. Jesse is thirteen and has never kissed a girl but he will do so soon.
One night, Lacy wakes up and discovers that someone or something has attacked the refrigerator only to disappear in the dark afterward. Soon, other inexplicable occurrences take place: trances, enigmatic bruises, photos being snatched from frames, seizures, hours stolen from the family’s lives, bloody noses, alarm sensors being tripped at the same time, temporary possessions, and three flocks of birds smashing themselves against the house simultaneously. Moreover, Sam claims The Sandman visits him in his dreams every night.
Ultimately, they meet Edwin Allard (J.K. Simmons), an expert in supernatural phenomena, who says they are being haunted by the Greys, aliens that have been hiding among human beings for a long time. He also tells them that the Greys are about to abduct a member of the family, most likely the first one they made contact with and the one Allard now sees in his dreams, that is to say little Sam.
Dark Skies follows the formula of two earlier Jason Blum productions, Insidious and Sinister, even if the type of haunting is different. In terms of atmosphere and tone, it is a close relative of Wan’s and Derrickson’s films. It also draws heavily from some old and new classics.
The basic plot is lifted from Tobe Hooper’s classic suburban ghost story Poltergeist (1982), and many elements are taken from both versions of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel in 1956, and Philip Kaufman’s remake in 1978), Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), M. Night Shaymalan’s Signs, and Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. However, as derivative as it is, Dark Skies is no spin-off. Originality is not the name of the game here. It doesn’t have to be.
Dark Skies certainly parades textbook genre trappings: children with unseen “friends”; vertiginous, paranoia-inducing tracking shots; feathered fauna hitting windows; walls covered in newspaper clippings of unexplained phenomena; limp bodies bent backward with eyes rolled, heads pointed skyward in a stance of demonic possession. There’s even surveillance footage in the by now shop-worn Paranormal Activity tradition. But those elements are employed with consummate dexterity.
Paranormal Activity-like temporary possessions that demand the actors must stand there, freeze-tag style, with eyes bugged out and mouths wide open.
All in all, there are a couple of good scares, including one doozy from The Birds, but also a series of events that explains why the aliens bother playing creepy fairy tricks on this suburban family before moving in for their real goal, a rote child snatching. Stewart has some lofty ambitions, some of which he almost fulfils.
Though it succeeds in replicating the overall architecture of those films, Dark Skies’ component parts are poorly constructed, lacking the finesse and artistry of the models its design follows. At night, the youngest member of the family, Sam (Kadan Rockett), appears to be communicating with “the Sandman,” a nocturnal visitor who leaves welts on Sam.
But it isn’t all grim: a solitary evening bike ride home for Jesse after his first innocent teenage kiss — an unexpected but not incongruous sequence infused with exhilarated delirium — soars.
Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies offers passable home-invasion horror of the Close Encounters variety, right down to the screws that loosen themselves, the UFO heat lamps suffusing doorways with light, and the bubbling leftovers dumped from the fridge.