Directed by: Scott Stewart
Written by: Scott Stewart
Featuring: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, J.K. Simmons, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett
Watch the skies. We may have visitors.
Ever since I was a kid, I've been a little unnerved by aliens. Even E.T. sort of gave me the willies, although I can't say I was having abduction nightmares or anything. There's just something that's both fascinating and frightening about the idea of intelligent life somewhere in outer space, and there are so many fantastic movies that deal with this subject. When I saw the trailer for Dark Skies, I was honestly taken by surprise. I'd never even heard of the film. I don't watch a lot of TV, but I wasn't seeing advertisements on Facebook or YouTube, so I knew it wasn't being pushed much. It was flying, quite literally, under the radar of many of my fellow horror fans. All I can say is, what a shame, because Dark Skies may be one of the creepiest films I've seen in a couple of years.
Produced by the team who gave us Sinister and written/directed by the mind behind Legion and Priest, it would be easy to write off Dark Skies without giving it a shot; the PG-13 rating alone made several of my friends scoff since they knew it wouldn't be a gorefest or show any nudity. The biggest name in the film is Keri Russell, and while she's been doing good work lately, to many people she's unfortunately still known as either Felicity or "that girl from the Lifetime movies."
Dark Skies is set in a small suburban neighborhood, the kind of place where you'd let your neighbors borrow your lawn mower without a second thought. Lacy Barrett (Keri Russell) and her husband, Daniel (Josh Hamilton), are struggling to make ends meet. With Daniel out of work and Lacy only pulling part-time hours as a real estate agent, they are scraping by to provide a life for their young adolescent son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo), and five-year-old, Sam (Kadan Rockett). Jesse is basically a good kid who wanders into mischief territory while hanging out with his older friend, nicknamed Rat — the two watch shitty '80s porn, smoke cheap pot that Rat obtains, and stay out past curfew — but other than that, the Barrett family's life is blessedly free of drama.
Then, one night, Lacy wakes up to a strange noise and heads down to the kitchen to investigate. There, she finds that all of the family's canned goods and bottles have been impossibly stacked to make a geometric pattern that casts a weird symbolic shadow on the ceiling. Thoroughly freaked out, the Barretts call the cops, but the police advise them that it was probably a prank by their sons. The next night, all of the family photos go missing from their frames while the Barretts sleep peacefully upstairs.
From there, the strange events begin to snowball, going from harmless mischief to truly freaky happenings; Sam vanishes from his bed in the time it takes his mother to flick a light switch, Jesse begins to hear ringing that occurs only inside his own head, and mysterious bruises and marks begin to appear on their bodies. Lacy, Sam and Daniel each suffer blackouts, resulting in them long stretches of lost time.
Dark Skies starts with a kick and doesn't let up until the credits roll; it's got a lot of genuinely freaky moments and beautiful shots in it, as well as unsettling effects in many places. One of the most frightening visuals occurs during Daniel's blackout, when he stares into space, eyes and mouth wide open, unseeing, while his wife frantically tries to wake him up. Without warning, his nose begins to gush rivers of blood, but he still doesn't unlock his eyes from whatever he's seeing beyond this world. Moments like this, while far from the tendon-slicing grue that horror fans are accustomed to seeing, are incredibly effective and gave me an uneasy feeling every time something strange began to happen onscreen. The "grays," as the aliens are called in the film, are only shown a few times. They are the typical oval-headed, long-limbed, skinny beings we're used to seeing — no Men in Black creativity here — but, somehow, that makes it even worse. These are the monsters you know, and their visibility is used sparingly and to great effect, somewhat reminiscent of the reveals in Signs by M. Night Shyamalan. The final showdown isn't completely unexpected but it does work, and the last shot before the credits is like a sucker punch to the gut for anyone who became emotionally invested in this family during the course of the film. The movie is scored by the amazing Joseph Bishara, who also composed Insidious, and his ominous score helps create the film's foreboding atmosphere.
Maybe what makes Dark Skies so effective can be explained in a conversation Lacy has with the resident alien expert, Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons). She asks, "Why us? What makes us so special?" and Pollard replies, "Nothing. Absolutely nothing makes you special." The idea that aliens walk among us already, that there is no "invasion" happening because they're already here, is one the film chooses to run with, and it builds a convincing case. This is a perfectly average family, with nice kids and a nice home, who, like many, are struggling to pay their cable bill in the recession. Daniel is an out-of-work architect who goes on several failed job interviews. Lacy is a real estate agent who can't lie to her clients when she knows she'd be doing them a disservice. They throw barbecues and pool parties and hang out with their friends at the park while the kids play. These are people we like, and we watch their slow downward spiral at the hands of these extraterrestrials like a terrible train wreck we can't look away from. From start to finish we want the Barretts to find a way out of their situation because they are us. Any of us could wake up in the morning and find all of our picture frames barren, or snap out of what we think is a daydream and realize we lost a few hours.
Featuring fine, believable acting and good scares, Dark Skies is an effective, neat little horror flick and I applaud the filmmakers for using aliens, something we've been missing in the recent wash of zombies, vampires, demonic possessions and found-footage films. It's really a shame it came out during Oscar season and was completely swept under the rug, because Dark Skies is not a bad film at all.