A film review by Craig J. Koban March 6, 2013


2013, PG-13, 97 mins.

Lacy Barrett: Keri Russell / Daniel Barrett Josh Hamilton / Jesse Barrett: Dakota Goyo / Sam Barrett: Kaden Rockett / Edwin Pollard: J.K. Simmons

Written and directed by Scott Stewart

DARK SKIES scores no real points for originality.  It’s pretty derivative at its core storyline, which judiciously appropriates elements from several other far better domestic horror sci-fi films like POLTERGEIST, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and SIGNS, for good measure.  There’s not much about DARK SKIES that truly separates itself from its antecedents. 

Yet, having said all of that, writer/director Scott Stewart’s scantly budgeted $3.5 million film manages to take a few fresh creative detours from an otherwise overused genre to make it modestly stand-out on its own two-feet.  Instead of framing the umpteenth family circle haunted house film populated by spooks and spectres, DARK SKIES finds its characters battling stealthy visitors from outer space.  This is completely tipped off by a rather unnecessary introductory title card that sports a quotation from the legendary writer Arthur C. Clarke on the nature of extraterrestrials and our fear of them.  It’s a bit too bad, because it utterly gives away right from the get-go the explanation behind the story’s otherworldly occurrences.  However, DARK SKIES slowly and methodically builds to such a tangible level of inherent creepiness that I was willing to forgive such a blunder. 

The film also takes its time in its introductory stages, which focuses a bit more on character dynamics first before unleashing all-out theater-seat-grabbing thrills.  The rather slow build-up to the scares works in DARK SKIES’ favor, as we get to witness the perfunctory daily lives of its family before really strange things begin to happen to them.  The well paired Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton play Lacy and Daniel Barrett, a rather financially strapped middle-upper class couple that are struggling to keep up on mortgage payments due to his unemployment and her troubles on the real-estate selling front.  As a result, they tend to fight a lot, which upsets their two sons, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett), who both wish their problems would all just go away.  



Then, without warning one night, inexplicably weird incidents begin to happen within their stressed, but altogether tight family unit.  Lacy wakes up one night to find that not only has her fridge been raided, but food and other kitchen implements have been stacked in manners almost far too complicated for human hands.  Worst yet, there were no signs of forcible entry.  The youngest son Sam then begins to exhibit symptoms of sleepwalking, which he then later reveals to be part of his nightly conversations he is having with some being he calls "The Sandman.”  On one particularly grisly day three separate flocks of birds all manage to crash into the Barrett home, leaving it covered in entrails and blood.  More stranger and unsettling is the fact that Lacy and Daniel begin to notice that they're having their own blackouts and losing time for no reason whatsoever and that their kids are beginning to exhibit some truly alarming burn marks on their bodies that have no conscious point of origin.  

After much research on Google and Wikipedia – not to mention Lacy’s very eerie close encounter with a shadowy figure that appears and disappears from her son’s room at will – the Barretts begin to deduce that something foul is definitely afoot – and not from Earth.  After having one too many unexplained seizures, trances, and mysterious nose bleeds and bodily injuries, the desperate and frightened couple seek out a local UFO expert (J.K. Simmons) for advice, who manages to appear near the end of the film for two reasons: (a) To explain just what the hell is happening to the Barretts and (b) It gives Simmons a splendid opportunity to engage in a bravura performance of tact and restraint that has to thanklessly relay potentially laughable plot exposition to the audience while not making it seem utterly preposterous.  The temptation here would have been to play this Yoda of extra-terrestrial knowledge broadly to the point of high camp, but Simmons is sly here for playing things with a soft-spoken timbre and sincerity. 

Russell and Hamilton deserve a bit of acting credit as well, as they not only evoke a totally authentic married couple, but also manage to credibly relay emotionally strained spouses that are truly disturbed and frustrated by their alien invaders from beyond.  Again, the script is not out for instantly terrifying viewers from the very beginning; rather, it establishes the characters and the film’s human element from the onset, which perhaps is what makes all of the ape-shit lunacy that transpires in the film’s final act go down a bit more smoothly.  Furthermore, DARK SKIES does a good job at keeping the explanations of the odd phenomenon – sans the opening title card giveaway – at a reasonable arm’s length.  Yes, we know that E.T.s are the culprit here, but the hows and whys of their methodical commitment to making the Barretts' lives a living, sanity-crushing hell remains enjoyably elusive throughout. 

Not all of DARK SKIES works flawlessly.  To be fair and to reiterate, POLTERGEIST told essentially a similar story to much better and more memorable effect 30-plus years ago.  The actual alien visitors themselves are so frustratingly opaque as creations that you either have to chalk this up to the film’s lack of finances or creative hiccups (granted, the film agreeably keeps their corporal appearances to a bare minimum; the idea of them is scarier than the appearance of them).  The final act of the story – pitting the fortified Barretts fighting off the visitors with firearms and threats – never really germinates to something truly satisfying or viscerally engaging.  This also leads to some unexplained gaffes in the film itself:  If aliens, for example, are able to invade your dreams, pass through walls, disappear at will, and cause electronic disruptions with their movement, then how could guns and/or guard dogs be any type of a defense against them?  Also, why wouldn’t the aliens just pass through the boarded-up windows instead of physically removing the nails and boards to get in?  Hmmmm…. 

The final cue-sequel scene of DARK SKIES is also an unremarkable letdown, considering most of the good that built up towards it.  Yet, poorly rendered aliens, head-scratching logic, and lame-brained conclusions aside, DARK SKIES works as an exercise in pure genre filmmaking.  It gets the job done in terms of creating and maintaining a constant sense of dread and unease throughout, which is what all haunted house films should aspire to.  I was a bit surprised to see that DARK SKIES was directed by Stewart, who previously made two wretched films that I loathed in 2009’s end-of-days stinkfest, LEGION and the dead-on-arrival undead horror film PRIEST from 2011 (both made my list of the worst films of their respective years).  Instead of perpetuating those two films’ eye-gouging level of horrid CGI overkill and frenetic action, Stewart wisely dials his schtick down in DARK SKIES to focus on disquieting and sinister spookiness.  The film is an imitative pastiche, to be sure, but it’s a proficiently made and scary pastiche that’s never dull.

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