2/28/13 - A family is being messed with by a scary something in Dark Skies, a kind of half-baked horror movie that turns into a half-baked sci-fi movie.
Because, SPOILER ALERT, aliens. The “something” is aliens. I don’t think not knowing is really the thing that would have saved the movie for you.
Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel Barrett(Josh Hamilton) are a middle class family that seems to have been right on the edge of being upper middle class but now is slipping toward lower middle class. Daniel is out of work, Lacy isn’t killing it as a real estate agent and now the mortgage is 90 days past due. Wrecked credit scores, a possible loss of house, marital fighting — the Barretts are headed for trouble and sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo), a young teenager, and Sam (Kadan Rockett), young elementary-school-aged, are well aware that something is wrong. In desperate need of a break, what the Barrett family doesn’t need is for the kids to start having problems. Problems sleeping, for example, because somebody Sam calls “the Sandman” is visiting him at night. Problems with the alarm system, which goes off without any evidence of a door having opened. Problems with birds, three flocks of which fly, suicide-mission-style, straight into the Barretts’ house. Problems with the neighbors, because a yard full of dead birds is a hard thing to explain.
As more and more weird things happen, Lacy and Daniel try to figure out why, for example, all the photos would suddenly vanish from their house or all their food would be stacked in Jenga-like piles in their kitchen. They install cameras, Daniel tries to keep watch at night, they scour the Internet — all while trying to hang on to their precarious social position (Daniel continues to interview for jobs, Lacy tries to make a house sale and both of them try not to scare off the neighbors). But soon Lacy comes to the realization that maybe someone, someone “not from here,” as she explains to Daniel, isn’t just toying with her family, it’s threatening to tear it apart.
Dark Skies almost has a sense of humor about itself. When Daniel is tells his wife “it’s not aliens” — because, really, what would you say if your spouse was all “you know what’s wrong here? aliens” — or when the movie has the family preparing for a showdown with its tormentors, there is a sense that some of what’s happening is being played for laughs (or, at least, chuckles) as much as to build tension. Perhaps building in some “isn’t this crazy” humor even helps to ramp up the tension because it makes the action seem just a hair more real. (Horror movies where no characters act like they have ever seen a horror movie feel just as campy and dull as movies where people will immediately buy that the dead are talking to them or aliens are rearranging their kitchen.) Whatever it is, whatever the movie is trying to do, I wish there was more of it. At one point, Jesse rides his bike home from hanging out with friends and is completely high on (yes pot, but also) just having kissed a girl. The movie presents this in a way that briefly makes you forget what kind of a movie you’re watching and just give a “ha” to the emotion of the scene. Though the tone and the overall quality of, well, everything are not as well done, this very minor addition of color to this otherwise very spare sketch kind of reminded me of Drag Me to Hell. I don’t need every scary movie to also be meta-commentary on the genre and a gallon and a half of laughs but when you get something just a bit more going on, it makes you feel like you’re watching something somebody really thought about and put effort into.
The casting would also suggest that, at some point at least, somebody wanted Dark Skies to be genuinely entertaining and not just a throwaway thriller. Keri Russell has a harsh edge that really works here as a woman just trying to keep her family from falling over its own fiscal cliff. Josh Hamilton is also an interesting choice. His IMDB page indicates that he’s been working but I don’t actually remember seeing since his The House of Yes and Kicking and Screaming days in the mid 1990s. (Yes, early Noah Baumbach was nearly 20 years ago — take a minute and join me in feeling old.) He does a really good job of capturing a desperate shlubbiness: a big house he can’t afford, a wife who is clearly a little disappointed in him and now this, now aliens are pestering his family. Sigh, great, his shoulders seem to say in every scene.
Dark Skies is a few revisions and one smart idea about how to pull off an alien story while also trying to say something about The Times In Which We Live away from being a truly decent movie. As it is, it is an OK-ish horror film that disappoints because we can glimpse here and there the ways it could have been something more. C
Rated PG-13 for violence, terror throughout, sexual material, drug content and language — all involving teens. Written and directed by Scott Stewart, Dark Skies is an hour and 37 minutes long and is distributed by Dimension Films.