In a way, Dark Skies doesn’t play much like an alien movie at all. Movies about extraterrestrials tend to deliver grand invasions, colonizing and subjugating the human population. Even the most notable exception, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, climaxes with a massive visitation with spaceships and everything. Instead, this film plays out more like Poltergeist or Insidious — with which it shares a producer — about a family haunting or possession. Which similarity it shares with large chunks of Close Encounters, come to think of it. But while that film was infused with the sense of awe and wonder, Spielberg pushed so well in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Dark Skies is unquestionably a horror movie, and a fairly effective one at that.
The Barretts are a typical suburban American family. Daniel (Josh Hamilton) lost his architecture job in the recession, and they’ve been making ends meet — barely — on the income his wife, Lacy (Keri Russell), makes as a realtor. Their 13-year-old son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is hanging around with an older budding delinquent (L.J. Benet), and has a crush on the girl across the street (Annie Thurman). And he’s started telling scary bedtime stories to his younger brother, Sam (Kadan Rockett), which is leading to nightmares.
Or are they nightmares? Strange things start happening around the house. One night the contents of the fridge are in a mess on the floor and the back door is open; the next night the door is still locked, but everything in the kitchen is stacked ornately, casting weird shadows on the ceiling. Sam says it’s the work of the sandman, a character from Jesse’s stories who lives on the moon.
The strange events build up. After turning their alarm service back on it “malfunctions”, with all entry points triggering simultaneously, but not until all the family photos disappear from their frames. Birds dive-bomb the house. Sam starts acting strangely. Lacy loses six hours.
There’s even a parallel to Tangina Barrons, the medium from Poltergeist: as Lacy and Daniel put together what’s happening, they locate an expert on alien encounters (J.K. Simmons). But his outlook isn’t quite as rosy as a simple exorcism.
Written and directed by Scott Stewart, Dark Skies is miles ahead of his previous efforts, Legion and Priest. I have to wonder if it’s the lack of big action sequences, and the emphasis on mood, with which he seems far more adept. It builds slowly but carefully, drawing the family deeper and deeper into their predicament. Even the climactic sequence is downright claustrophobic, and even a little mindbending.
Russell and Hamilton are both excellent as they slowly come undone, and Goyo plays the ambivalent young teenager to a T. But Rockett is the real centerpiece here; he sells both the weirdness and the confusion that make Sam, and the story, work.
As with any horror story, we have to ask ourselves what — if anything — it’s addressing in us, and even here the screenplay comes across with an early offhand reference to China and India. This speaks to our fears of domination by outsiders who act subtly, who most people disregard or write off, and who we take no notice of until it’s too late. And setting it up like Poltergeist draws a direct connection to the consequences of our own past (colonial) sins.
This has been a long time coming, the film says, and our only hope is to band together tightly and hope they decide it’s simply easier to leave us alone. Whether it’s true or not is open to debate, but our fears are rarely rational.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.