Dark Skies is the latest PG-13 alien horror flick from the producers of such hits as Sinister, Insidious and Paranormal Activity. Director Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest) attempts to mesh together the buildup and pacing of Sinister with the jump scares and security system tricks of the Paranormal Activity franchise and the result is a film that’s occasionally worth admiring for its dedication to the tone, but something that’s almost too afraid to try to take it to the next level. Dark Skies could have been something great, something both scary and well-rounded, but instead it’s just another cheaply made horror film that moves too slow and rarely has anything to show you.
Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton) are your typical working class American couple. Lacy’s showing houses for a living while Daniel is struggling to find a job, but they make it work to support their family of two young boys. It’s not easy trying to raise a family in this economy, one that’s so uncertain and unstable, but they get by. Things were going steady and possibly looking up until one night they start noticing some weird encounters. Things like the fridge getting unloaded or all of the dishes in the house getting stacked up.
At first they alert the local authorities, but they don’t get any help, because the cops suggest that it’s a prank being played on the parents by one of their children. It’s a reasonable explanation, because Daniel doesn’t care for one of his son’s friends and he’s clearly displayed his lack of approval on several occasions. But as more and more incidents occur they soon realize that whatever is happening is much larger than a simple prank.
Birds are crashing into their house and suddenly both Lacy and Daniel are having these weird unexplainable episodes. They purchase a home security unit and begin recording their nights, but that doesn’t help either, because Daniel finds numerous occasions where the videos skip or become distorted.
Lacy attempts to reach out to some alien expert (played briefly by J.K. Simmons), but Daniel insists that he’s a nut and that he’ll figure out the answer to this problem without any outsider help. That obviously doesn’t go as planned or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Dark Skies stays within the boundaries that most PG-13 alien films of this nature operate in. It starts out slow, with some quick encounters that are meant to grab your attention, but then it cascades into the weirdness and starts poking at the basic alien guidelines for abductions and encounters. Originality isn’t Dark Skies strongest trait, but it continues to get by without much trouble thanks to the acting and surprisingly the direction.
Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton give us something to relate to. They’re not a rich family living the great life or anything too out there. They’re actually just a basic couple trying to hold their family together during a tough financial time. The alien encounter is only icing on the already depressing cake and yet they still push through all of the negatives to turn in two relatable and rational performances. Movies like this usually have idiot characters that make poor decisions, but Daniel and Lacy for the most part play this one out just like you or I would have. Russell and Hamilton’s chemistry isn’t magnetic, but it feels authentic for a couple going through some hard times.
Director Scott Stewart has yet to make a movie that I’ve enjoyed, so naturally I walked into Dark Skies with beyond low expectations. And somehow he turns in a good piece of work. Not great, but more than serviceable considering the material. He not once abandons the film’s slower pacing, which is reassuring. He builds up the scares and waits until the absolute last moment to throw in the big hitters. I like this and I admire this very much, because so many working horror directors, especially in the PG-13 field, work with a mentality that assumes all audience members have ADHD or something. Not once do they even think about why something is scary or how to ring out every last scare. They’re usually all about the money shots and moving onto whatever is next.
Stewart shows that he cares about planning and ensuring that every single second is accounted for on screen, but then he gets caught into that web that so many other directors fall victim to. He turns Dark Skies into another alien movie that relies on brightly-lit silhouettes of shaking doors, oddly aligned furniture and high pitched screams and noises. He trades in his steady buildup for an ending act that can only be described as a bunch of images thrown together at random, with a sudden voice over reveal that feels like it’s acting as a twist, but is really just a natural progression of everything leading up to this point.
And this pisses me off immensely.
Suddenly the dreary and intriguing Dark Skies becomes another freakin’ alien movie that relies on showing you almost nothing for 90% of the film. You keep seeing these dark shadows of CGI and you excuse them for now, hoping that the eventual payoff will be worth it. But it’s not.
It’s not even a payoff really. It’s just Stewart exhausting his muscles as a writer/director. He’s a solid worker behind the camera, but his writing lacks continuation and conclusion. Dark Skies gets stuck in a rut halfway and never manages to pull itself up and out. It starts coasting on the same reused alien encounters until it has no other choice but to end abruptly, yet not soon enough.
How many times do we need to see Daniel stare at his computer screen, questioning the blurred moments where things get distorted? How many times do we need to see Lacy walk around the house, only to find some sort of unexplainable alignment of her China plates? We get that they’re being stalked by some extra-terrestrial beings. THEY get that they’re being closely watched by them too. Take the next step already.
But Scott Stewart doesn’t do that. He continues to revisit those moments, for another 25 or 30 minutes and then when he’s good and ready he closes the doors (literally, he locks the family in their house for the finale) and he goes into music video mode, giving us a hodgepodge of stained dream-like imagery. It makes for an impressive highlight reel if he were auditioning for a future gig, but as a conclusion to an already too long alien film it makes for added confusion.
I have faith in Scott Stewart as a director. He’s clearly learned from his mistakes with Dark Skies. His direction is much more consistent and less cluttered this time around, but his writing still needs a lot of work. Sticking closely to the genre’s established characteristics is fine, but continuously giving the audience hope for a grander reveal, only to end it just like every other alien-focused horror film is just lazy and insulting.
Dark Skies – 6/10