Blumhouse Productions, the company behind the Paranormal Activity series, Insidious and Sinister takes a turn away from demonic possession and ghost stories, but keeps the haunted family dynamic in writer/director Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies. The psychological thriller focuses on the Barrett family, whose peaceful suburban home begins to play host to strange and terrifying events that seem to only be happening to them. While Dark Skies would have benefited from more secretive marketing that would keep the force behind these events an actual mystery, there are still some tense moments and disturbing scares to be found. The most interesting facet of the film is not the external menace, but the unexpected subtext of the growing pains of adolescence. Hit the jump for my review.
Audiences who are familiar with the jump scares and camera play in the previous Blumhouse productions may appreciate Dark Skies’ more conventional approach. Stewart chose to shoot the film in a classic manner rather than resorting to any sort of found footage or first person perspective gimmick and the film is stronger for it. The device certainly could have been shoehorned into the plot, but I’m happy it didn’t.
Dark Skies focuses on Lacy Barrett (Keri Russell), her husband Daniel (Josh Hamilton) and their sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett). Lacy is a real estate agent who is under pressure to close a deal on a house soon because Daniel, an architect, is currently between jobs. Tensions in the Barrett household escalate as strange disturbances start to occur each night in their otherwise safe and quiet suburban home. The events begin to increase in frequency, intensity and downright weirdness (refrigerator contents dumped on the floor one night, dinnerware and canned goods stacked in pyramids the next, ramping up to unexplained mass bird strikes, violent nose bleeds and loss of hours of consciousness).
When the Barrett boys become the victims of physical interactions with these disturbances, the Barretts face the unbelievable possibility of aliens being behind it all, owing to similar first-hand accounts elsewhere in the country. They seek out a supposed expert, Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons) who pretty much tells them they’re screwed, but gives them advice on how best to fight back. With a touch of Spielbergian movie-family magic, the Barretts make their last stand…but not all is well when the morning comes.
As far as alien invasion stories go, Dark Skies takes the interesting approach in the somewhat revelatory conceit that the “invasion” has already happened; aliens are among us, they have been for centuries and they are so advanced that we can’t detect them or do a damn thing to stop them. The Barretts aren’t special, they’re just extremely unlucky and have been on the aliens’ radar for a number of years. At least this was some out-of-the box thinking on the part of Stewart, especially to avoid comparisons to movies like M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
However, much like in Signs, the alien menace should have been left in the corner of the eye because the effects are laughable to the extent that they detract from the tension in the film. Believe me, there is tension to be found if you let yourself get taken in by the story. Each night’s event is so unpredictable that half of the anxiety comes from just wondering what the hell is about to happen (the other half is from when). When the Barretts install closed circuit security cams? Real creepy stuff. Unfortunately, the timing of said events gets repetitive and some of the occurrences (taking over Lacy’s body to make her headbutt a window over and over, Daniel’s silent scream) teeter on the border between creepy and funny. It’s not until the aliens start to get inside their heads that things get really trippy.
I must say that the casting for Dark Skies was perfectly done. Russell and Hamilton don’t phone it in one bit and they appear fully committed to the story. They’re actually one of the most believable movie “married with kids” couples I’ve seen in a while. The loveless, sexless, tension-filled marriage feels real, as does their frustration with the financial (and now extraterrestrial) situation. Goyo comes into his own throughout the course of the film, but is purposefully restrained by the plot, which shifts the audience’s focus onto the younger Sam (Rockett). After both boys experience physical manifestations, either via horrendous bruises and branding marks or outright electrocutions, the Barretts’ family and friends begin to suspect them of abuse. This is where Simmons comes in to give a nice solid supporting performance (with a bit too much exposition thrown in) and acts as a less-eccentric version of Poltergeist’s spiritual healer, Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein).
While the performances and the alien plot points are just fine, the psychological underpinnings that follow Jesse (Goyo) are the most interesting in retrospect. He’s a good kid who takes care of his little brother and tries to ignore the fact that they can hear their parents arguing through the walls on a near-nightly basis. On the cusp of adolescence, Jesse runs around with a few friends who profess to be more experienced than him both sexually and in terms of recreational drug use. There’s nothing too outlandish here, but rather a nice example of a classic antagonistic male friendship with the rebellious Kevin Ratner (L.J. Benet) and a burgeoning love interest in the cute and confident Shelley Jessop (Annie Thurman).
Both the overt and the subtextual plots of Dark Skies come home in a fun and thrilling “defend the homefront” set piece that is the climax of the film. The aliens are coming to abduct one of the boys; the Barretts are not about to let that happen. There are some incredibly creepy moments here as well as some rather unfortunate missteps, but my favorite sequence was the total mindfuck that Jesse experiences as a result of the alien’s influence. It’s the most interesting few minutes in the movie, as Stewart takes us on a montage journey of what must be some of his favorite and most formative films. There are glimpses of Steven Spielberg, Tobe Hooper and even Stanley Kubrick in Jesse’s visions, ones that are both harrowing and heartbreaking at how well they represent the pain and confusion of adolescence.
Sadly, after that great sequence, it feels as if Stewart isn’t quite sure how to wrap the film up. There’s a definite bittersweet tone to the end of Dark Skies and it’s a bold departure from the endings from such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist or even Signs, but Stewart didn’t quite bring it all the way home.
On one note, Dark Skies is an entertaining sci-fi thriller that will give you a few laughs and a decent amount of scares, but if you come out of it reminiscing about the terror and confusion of adolescence, you’ll appreciate it on a whole other level.