Directed by Scott Stewart
Screenplay by Scott Stewart
Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo
How long is Dark Skies? 95 minutes.
What is Dark Skies rated? PG-13 for violence, terror throughout, sexual material, drug content and language – all involving teens.
A neatly paced but flawed chiller
breaks up the February doldrums.
In the suburbs, there’s a feeling of camaraderie. If you need a hand fixing the minivan’s broken taillight, Joe from next door can help you out. If you’d like a date night for Italian food and a romantic comedy in theaters, Christine from up the street can take the kids. No one ever shows up empty-handed to a neighborhood barbeque. With so many families packed into such a tiny space, who could possibly feel unsafe?
In the opening scenes of the new PG-13 alien horror movie Dark Skies, the camera pans along gorgeously groomed suburban streets, pauses on teenagers walking home from school, slows for kids playing in a house, and illustrates how closely packed the suburbs truly are – there’s barely room for a driveway between this house and the next. The movie opens with a matter-of-fact quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we aren’t. Both are equally terrifying.” The suburbs seem to illustrate both aspects of this idea – in the suburbs, we are certainly not alone…but can we really count on our neighbors?
Dark Skies follows the Barrett family, Lacy (Keri Russell), Daniel (Josh Hamilton), thirteen-year-old Jesse, and little Sammy. It’s a typical suburban summer, with barbeques and fireworks and “rehabilitating” hurt lizards as pets; adults discuss open relationships and divorce over the heads of teenagers, who wrestle poignantly with blooming hormones. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear Daniel’s hollow eyes and Lacy’s strained appearance are no coincidence – Daniel lost his job in the (subtly alluded to) recession, and Lacy is picking up the slack as a real estate agent.
Meanwhile, Jesse is hanging out with an older kid, getting an education in porn (School Girls 3), pot, and girls. “Lunar Base to Star Command” is a common refrain in the Barrett household after bedtime as the two boys communicate via walkie-talkie, telling scary stories and discussing their parents’ discontent. Lacy, prone to nervous waking in the night, gets up to check on the kids and discovers eerily perfect towers of food products balancing in angles that physics deem impossible. When Sammy joins his stunned mother in the kitchen, she instantly asks him if he knows who did this. “The Sandman,” Sammy answers. In horror movies, kids and animals always understand things adults can’t; it’s just how the world works. It isn’t usually until the third act that the adults begin to believe the kids, though, so it’s a bit jarring that Lacy would so immediately ask her son what’s going on.
As strange occurrences continue to bombard the Barrett clan – the strangest, perhaps, three flocks of starlings committing violent suicide against their walls and windows – Lacy becomes increasingly determined to find the cause while Daniel turns to technology. Pointing cameras all over the house will reveal the culprits, right? Unfortunately, the nature of the invasion, according to the National Wildlife Center a geomagnetic disturbance, renders technology vulnerable. It’s frustratingly unrealistic that, for some reason, no one in the family turns to the internet before the final act. Haven’t these guys seen “Ancient Aliens” or even “The X-Files?”
Everyone in the neighborhood slowly turns against the Barretts, and despite this abandonment their resolve increases. Amidst his parents’ increasing worry and his brother’s minor breakdowns, Jesse grows up. His crush, an Emma Stone lookalike from up the street, kisses him even after he mistakenly cops a feel thinking that’s just how things are done based on School Girls 3. He learns his best friend is kind of a psychopathic jackass when the kid starts shooting an air gun at him for target practice. He wrestles with righteous anger at his parents. You know, all the things that make being thirteen great. Sometimes PG-13 horror doesn’t fully cater to its intended demographic, and it’s a rather ingenious move to include a coming-of-age story for the teenage set. Jesse’s storyline is interwoven smoothly with his parents’ failing marriage and obvious love for one another, creating a family about which you actually care.
Lacy does finally turn to the internet and discovers the Barretts aren’t alone – these very same things, mysterious nosebleeds, blackouts, seizures, unexplained rashes and wounds, have happened to other families. In typical form, Lacy locates a nearby weirdo who has experience in the supernatural realm (see also Insidious, Sinister, and any other supernatural horror film – the protagonist must find an “expert” to discover the cause of the haunting). After some convincing, Daniel agrees to accompany Lacy to the city, where a conspiracy theorist named Pollard (J.K. Simmons) meets them in his smoky, cat-filled apartment. The Barretts, according to Pollard, are being visited by The Grays, one of the three most common alien races. The invasion, he says, has already happened (this speech from Simmons brings to mind The Faculty, in which Robert Heinlein fanboy Elijah Wood asks, “If you wanted to take over the earth, would you blow up the White House, Independence Day style, or would you come in through the back door?”). Pollard tells them warily that there isn’t much they can do but fight.
In a sequence that’s most reminiscent of Signs, the Barretts board up their windows, buy a dog and a shotgun, and prepare for the invasion. This, of course, takes place on none other than Independence Day. Obviously a movie set in the American suburbs needs to culminate on the greatest American holiday. Suburbia is creepy enough as is – just ask Hollywood – but setting your final alien invasion on the Fourth of July is a little ham-fisted. Although Clarke noted that the possibility of aloneness in the universe is as terrifying as the idea that we may have company, the implication in Dark Skies is that even if we surround ourselves with people, we are still alone. On the Fourth of July in the suburbs there are people everywhere – so why doesn’t anyone notice the Barretts’ plight? (Pointedly, this is perhaps an eerier thought than the invasion itself.)
Although Dark Skies is flawed, it is well paced and neatly written. The screenplay is mostly subtle and intelligent, creepy and sweet in turn. Russell and Hamilton don’t have much chemistry, but even playing a wary, solemn alien enthusiast, J.K. Simmons is still equipped with his wry comic timing and discomfiting stare. The child actors are adequate, and the monsters are spooky without being overdone (luckily, you don’t see much of them at all).
Despite my deeply abiding love of horror, I’ve been gravitating recently toward ghosts and creeps instead of guts and gore. I don’t have anything against blood, sex, and copious f-bombs, but horror movies don’t need those things to be completely terrifying. A number of recent horror flicks (my favorite is Insidious, which shares producers Jason Blum and Jeanette Brill with Dark Skies) illustrate that horror can be spooky without being totally obscene. Likewise, Dark Skies serves as a neat combination of horror and sci-fi, bearing a distinct similarity to The Faculty, Independence Day, and Signs while remaining uniquely understated. It probably won’t blow anybody out of the water – though my theater full of teenagers, many of whom were running up and down aisles to talk to their friends, thoroughly enjoyed it. If you ignore the few nagging plot points that don’t make sense and the occasionally clumsy execution, it’s simple, creepy, and well done.