Film Review: Dark Skies

Keri Russell is menaced by an alien in Dark Skies.
Keri Russell is menaced by an alien in "Dark Skies."

DARK SKIES proves once again (as if any proof were necessary) that Blumhouse Productions has codified its horror template to the point that their films are the cinematic equivalent of blues music: the lyrics may change, but the subject matter or tone; and regardless of the writers and performers, you will hear the same 12-bar chord progression, hitting the same beats, with approximately the same musical arrangements. In this case, the innovation lies in the switch from unseen supernatural forces to unseen alien invaders; otherwise, the song remains the same.

In case you did not know it, the nuclear family is disintegrating. Mom and Dad cannot support their family’s suburban lifestyle. They argue – maybe not about money, but they argue because of money – or, more precisely, the lack of it. In fact, they are so busy arguing that they do not realize the greater threat lurking in the shadows of their home. Their children try to tell them, but hey – they’re just kids, and what do they know anyway? So the parents don’t listen; they just focus on financial problems, not realizing that even if Mom sells the property she is trying to unload, or if Dad gets the new job for which he has applied, that’s not going to solve the real problem.

I am of course talking about DARK SKIES here, but with a few changes the above paragraph could apply equally well to SINISTER or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, both of which revolved around monsters attempting – successfully, as it turned out – to snatch children right out from under Mom and Dad’s nose.

Fortunately, the parents in DARK SKIES are not quite as absurdly oblivious as the clueless couple in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4. They actually figure out something is wrong and consult a self-styled expert (J.K. Simmons, filling in for Vincent D’Onofrio, who performed similar service in SINISTER). Based on what they learn, they even try to do something about the problem, which generates a third act that almost resembles a legitimate piece of storytelling.

It’s nice to see DARK SKIES abandon the “Ignorant Plot” that fueled its immediate predecessors (in which ignorant characters wandered around for 90 minutes, seldom if ever getting a read on what was after them), but it is all for naught, since the conclusion is predetermined. (If that sounds like a spoiler, don’t blame me: DARK SKIES’ poster spells it out: “Once you’ve been chose, you belong to them.”)

As if sensing that predictability is a problem, writer-director Scott Stewart tosses in a last-minute – well, “surprise” would be too strong a word, as would “twist,” so let’s say “shift” – regarding the identity of the victim being targeted. This does not change the outcome in any meaningful way, nor does it lend any kind of dramatic frisson; it merely provides an illusion of the unexpected, a pretense toward actual plotting – as opposed to simply filling in the same old template.

I get the impression that Stewart intended a little bit more. Early scenes of the children’s pet lizard hints at some kind of foreshadowing – the aliens look down on us as we look down on animals – but nothing comes of the idea. The attempt to weave the alien scenario into the family drama suggests an attempt to provide a darker alternative to M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (which is echoed and quoted in several ways), but we never truly identify with the storytelling as anything more than an excuse to stitch together the scares, and any attempt at a dramatic resolution is short-circuited by the de rigueur denouement.

An alien makes a shadowy appearance behind Keri Russell.
If you are a fan of previous horror films from Blumhouse Productions, you will probably enjoy the same old song one more time. The cast of non-stars do a decent job of portraying everyday people. As usual, the slow build-up of suspense is carefully calculated, and the creepy set pieces are effectively handled. If only the scenario could weave a more convincing plot thread, there might be a real movie here. (In one of the scripts more amusing moments of lip-service, the inexplicable – and frankly pointless – scare tactics of the aliens are rationalized by the claim that the invaders are exploiting our fears, for reasons unknown – presumably, it’s some kind of psychological behavioral experiment?)

I feel a bit treacherous for shedding so much negative light on DARK SKIES. After all, Blumhouse Productions strives to craft horror films that rely on subtlety rather than shocks, on atmosphere rather than action. Their commodity is rare in today’s cinematic marketplace, so they deserve recognition for proving that this approach can sell tickets, but as the lackluster debut of DARK SKIES shows ($8.9-million for a sixth-place opening weekend) Blumhouse needs to infuse its formula with a little more variety and creativity.

DARK SKIES (February 22, 2013). Written and directed by Scott Stewart. PG-13. In widescreen and Dolby Digital. Produced by Blumhouse Productions. Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L. J. Benet.