Review: 'Dark Skies' is a Typical, Assembly Line Supernatural Thriller
by Jeremy Kirk
February 23, 2013
With the Paranormal Activity franchise and Sinister under his belt, producer Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions have taken low budget horror to new heights, delivering top-notch thrills with shoestring financing. There's a definite formula to these and other recent horror films, a formula that Blumehouse's latest, Dark Skies, follows to the letter. The twist here? It's a family being terrorized by aliens, not ghosts. And with no cliche left on the floor and little imagination, Dark Skies ends up an assembly line thriller, seemingly culled together from films that handled the alien abduction territory with much more success.
That formula we were talking about earlier includes a suburban home, the family (usually two or three kids, Dark Skies settling for two sons) going through troubling times (here, the father is having difficulty finding work), and the strange noises and objects moving by themselves that typically serve as day one for much more nefarious plans. The youngest son begins talking about Mr. Sandman, an imaginary friend who visits him at night, and even Crayons a picture of his new buddy, evidently an eight-foot-tall, grey person. Other members of the family begin blacking out, losing time, getting up in the middle of the night to stand quietly in the back yard. You remember. Kind of like Paranormal Activity.
That's a phrase that can be used for much of Dark Skies. It's kind of like Paranormal Activity. It's also kind of like Insidious. And Sinister. And a dozen or so other suburban-families-dealing-with-an-evil-presence movies that pretty much go all the way back to Poltergeist. There should be a moratorium on mother characters entering a kitchen only to find a dozen items stacked neatly atop one another. Writer/director Scott Stewart, of Legion and Priest fame, leaves no supernatural thriller untouched as he builds this story of alien encounters. Sure, many of the movies Dark Skies feels derived from are ghost stories, but aliens used as horror is nothing new. Dark Skies never does anything new or refreshing, and much of what it ends up lifting has already been done with a greater achievement on thrills in films like Signs and Fire in the Sky. It's difficult to say if they took anything from The Fourth Kind, which was derivative enough on its own.
At every turn, Dark Skies finds a way of going down the road most traveled, as if it's following a scare-by-numbers instructional that shows you exactly how to make a horror film in 2013. The threat of children being taken from the parents after strange marks begin appearing on their bodies introduces an interesting angle. There's a weight of real, emotional drama found deep in the cracks of the film. Stewart's best work in Dark Skies is genuinely making you care for this family, problems and all. Unfortunately, the predictability and general dullness of everything going on with this sympathetic family keeps the film from becoming an engaging thriller. Once J.K. Simmons shows up as Mr. Exposition, you want to jump to the twist ending.
And, oh yes, the twist ending long ago became and remains to be part of the formula. It's sad, though, how choreographed it's all become, as if the writer/director wanted you to guess exactly how it's all going to wrap up long before it actually does. He then proceeds to flashback to earlier moments from the film as the "surprise" ending plays out. You're supposed to, at this moment, says, "Ah ha!" What it ends up making you say is, "Yeah? That's it?" The twist end has become an art form unto itself with very few cases hitting it out of the park in recent years. The Kevin Spacey one-two punch of The Usual Suspects and Se7en was a long time ago, and M. Night Shyamalan gave up the twist ending when he gave up the storytelling. Dark Skies doesn't even both trying to fool its audience, and the resulting final moments of the film feel as prepared and as lazy as much of the rest of it. I don't care how intense the music gets.
Dark Skies is little more than someone slapping the Paranormal Activity/Insidious structure onto an alien abduction story. It never feels as if anyone involved is putting in an effort, creating a gray, blunted atmosphere perfect for putting people to sleep at midnight shows. Even the acting (with Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton filling in as the standard, lead couple, and Dakota Goyo and Kadan Rockett doing commendable work as the kids) stays well below a certain threshold of energy. Simmons' exposition is delivered and understood, but his English professor delivery doesn't help keep those snoozing audience members from continuing to snooze away. In the end, it almost feels like everyone involved in Dark Skies was under some sort of spell, as if an alien presence had taken over everyone's body and forced them to go through the motions of creating a typical, supernatural thriller. Now that would make for a good movie.
Jeremy's Rating: 4 out of 10