For better or worse the horror genre often seems to move in trends. From the bloodthirsty animal terrors and slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s to the J-horror remakes and (so-called) torture porn of the ’00s, genre filmmakers see a hit and immediately move to duplicate its success. Sometimes it works, but more often than not later films just feel like more of the same done worse.
The most recent trend in horror has been haunted house movies thanks to hits like Paranormal Activity and Insidious. Their success ushered in a slew of imitators, but for every PA2 or The Woman in Black there have been a dozen direct to DVD duds. Standing out in a crowded field isn’t easy, but while the surest way to get noticed is by making a quality movie the second surest is to add something new to the mix. Sinister is a good example of a well made film that finds a fresh angle on the genre.
By contrast, Dark Skies is simply an example of a film… that finds a singular fresh angle on the genre.
The Barret family leads a fairly unassuming suburban life, but while they look to have it all together on the outside they’re hurting behind the walls of their house. Daniel (Josh Hamilton) was laid off recently and is struggling to find a new job. Lacy (Keri Russell) is working as the sole bread-winner, but her real estate agent paychecks are far from consistent. They have two sons, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett), and both boys are growing more and more troubled.
Jesse’s issues stem from his parents’ fighting as much as they do from his fumblings as a teenager with girls, drugs and unwise friendships, but Sam’s problems are far more serious. He’s having terrifying dreams, sleepwalking out of the house and having late night conversations with someone he calls the Sandman. Things worsen when evidence of nocturnal intruders appears alongside strange marks on all of their bodies, hours of lost time and a visit with a depressing UFO nut (J.K. Simmons).
Writer/director Scott Stewart takes a departure from his first two films with Dark Skies, and that alone is worth applauding since Legion and Priest were narrative messes with abundant and questionable CGI in place of character, logic and story depth. He aims for something smaller here and finds success, however limited, with a family drama trapped in what essentially is a haunted house film. The welcome change that he brings to this genre outing is that instead of ghosts or demons as the source of the trouble, the Barrets are fighting for their lives and sanity against visitors from outer space.
In addition to the change of villain his script also expends effort trying to add real character depth to most of the family members. Both the time spent with Jesse’s teenage troubles and his parents’ marital conflicts make them fuller characters than these types of films usually allow. He also finds time to briefly explore the idea of the emasculated male as Daniel fights embarrassment over being unemployed and in financial straits before struggling in vain to be his family’s protector.
Appreciated as these efforts are though Stewart neglects the areas most necessary to a genre film. The film’s scares are mostly ineffective, and the alien invaders, once glimpsed, are poorly rendered and used to unimpressive effect. That’s the risk when picking a “monster” that isn’t ethereal and invisible, but it’s a risk that doesn’t pay off. The ending in particular is loaded with problems, but the most glaring is that the script sets it and us up for a showdown that we never really get. It’s unsatisfying to say the least.
Numerous logic issues also clutter the movie including effort and time spent boarding windows against an enemy that has already made it very clear that it passes through walls, Jesse’s seeming obliviousness to multiple (and not small) geometric marks on his body and parents who, after three nights of crazy shit linked to their youngest son still let him sleep alone unattended. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, turn on some goddamn lights!
Russell and Hamilton both do fine enough work here and show real chemistry together whether they’re loving or fighting, and Goyo does equally well as the angsty teen. Viewers will recognize him as Hugh Jackman’s precocious son in Real Steel, and he brings a calmer but more focused persona here. Simmons doesn’t have much to do, but he’s pretty much always awesome.
Dark Skies earns points for its novel premise and character work, but as a horror film it fails on too many levels. It manages a few chills throughout, many cribbed from other, better films (like Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but they’re not nearly enough. The small amount of tension and suspense the film does manage is deflated by a lack of follow-through and a poor script decision on Stewart’s part. For fans of mildly interesting mediocrity only.
The Upside: Interesting change of pace from haunted house films
The Downside: Major script issues; promise of thrilling third act confrontation dampened by lack of creativity, will power and budget
On the Side: There was a short-lived series in the late ’90s about aliens, and it was called, wait for it, Dark Skies.