The Invasion Already Happened:
I honestly don’t understand the overwhelmingly negative response to writer/director Scott Stewarts’ entry into the ‘alien abduction’ genre.
What makes Dark Skies so interesting for me is that not only does Stewart create a sympathetic and realistic family but, along with the very familiar staple ingredients of this kind of horror/S.F. film, he roots his plot in two particular areas of modern life that are completely recognisable: the brutalising effects of the current global recession on both the individual and on the family; and the nightmare of being wrongly reported to any Child Protection Agency for abuse of your kids. The latter I have no idea about, although Stewart’s writing is solid and intelligent enough that he made it real for me. The first, though, I have too much bloody experience of; and again he captures the way in which being out of work begins to affect every aspect of your life, right down to telling well-meaning white lies to your partner.
The film opens with a caption of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous and chilling quote:
“Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe or we are not.
“Both are equally terrifying.”
The opening credits then begin over scenes of typical suburban life: children are playing in a pool; a man is blowing leaves; pretty students are walking home from school. All filmed in quite a dreamy manner—but the subtly ominous soundtrack (by Joseph Bishara) is telling us that there is something else due to happen here.
Of course the dark side of suburbia is something that any filmgoer is familiar with through many movies, although David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist come to mind here (quite a few nods being given to the latter). In the midst of these surface-tranquil shots, however, there is one that stands out and speaks silently but eloquently of a different kind of suburban unease. It is a brief shot of a house for sale, with an addition under the sign saying that it is owned by the bank.
We are then introduced to the Barrett family preparing for that most normal of suburban events, the barbeque. Lacy (Keri Russell) is the breadwinner for the moment, selling real estate, which I found a subtly ironic touch. Her husband Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is a recently laid-off architect. He’s hiding from her just how bad things are, even down to a warning on their mortgage. The older of their two boys is Jesse (Dakota Goyo) who is just discovering the agony of noticing girls; and his brother, several years younger and with whom he has a lovely relationship, is Sam (Kadan Rockett) —who has just begun to be visited by a creature that he identifies in his childish way as the Sandman.
The Sandman begins to manifest himself in ways that could almost be seen at first as simply mischievous: raiding the fridge one night and rearranging things in a geometric pattern on another—in a scene that is a complete homage to Poltergeist. A less-than-useless cop puts the idea in their heads that it is one of the kids who is doing it; but when Lacy asks Sam if he is responsible he replies:
“He did it himself. Before he came to my room.”
Now that may not have the connotations of the little girl’s imperishable line “They’re here” in Hooper’s classic, but I’m still pretty sure that it isn’t something that you would want to hear coming out of your kids’ mouth.
When Lacy herself finally gets a glimpse of the entity leaning over Sam’s bed I was reminded of the first urban myth to be created by the internet: that of the Slender Man. The being is pitch black, stick thin and faceless. Stewart makes the wise decision to only show the creatures sparingly, which I found quite eerie. In fact I found this considerably creepier than Sinister from the same producer.
When Lacy’s best friend discovers hideous bruising on Sam, and when Jesse is hospitalised around the same time this is when these innocent parents—now in the middle of a full-blown nightmare—are brought to the attention of the Child Protective Agency. As I noted before, it is this coupled with the growing money problems that had me empathising as they find themselves in a situation that is completely out of their control.
J. K. Simmons makes a very welcome cameo as Edwin Pollard, someone who collects incidents of alien abduction. Pollard’s calm, rational tones as he explains the real horror that the family are caught up in also helps to ground Dark Skies in a very quiet but effectively terrifying way. As he explains that alien invasion doesn’t take place with the blowing up of national monuments he says:
“The invasion already happened. No one knows exactly where; but…they’re here. The presence of the Greys is now a fact of life. Like death and taxes.”
In terms of scares you will see nothing here that you haven’t seen in a hundred other similar films. It is Stewart’s handling of familiar themes with a slightly different touch that puts this one a notch above. It also helps that the two young actors who play the children are likeable and far removed from the irritating movie brats that you see so often, especially in American films. You can almost hear their pushy swinish parents in the background sometimes.
And the build up to the ‘home invasion’ of the climax is handled a hundred times better than in M. Night Shyamalan’s bigger budget but far inferior Signs.
NB It’s also possible that I liked this film so much because I was expecting nothing out of the usual from it. Add to that the fact that two days previously I had attempted to sit through Andrew Nicoll’s truly awful alien invasion film The Host. I only made it through an hour before I decided that life was far too short. I hope that I don’t see a worse movie in 2013. God knows what an actress of the calibre of Saoirse Ronan was doing in it; and as for William Hurt, I can only imagine that he was in dire need of the money. A true stinker, if ever there was one.