[NOTE: For those of you who want an opinion on Dark Skies with as little knowledge of the plot as possible - skip down to the final paragraph for a summary and score. For those unconcerned with basic plot details - read on.]
Dark Skies centers Lucy and Daniel Barrett (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton), suburban parents just trying to get by and provide for their sons, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett). The struggles of normal life become extraordinary when the Barretts start to experience strange phenomena occurring around their house: items from the cupboard arranged in impossible geometry, alarms set off by phantoms, items missing without sign of theft, etc.
Soon aggravation becomes outright terror as the Barretts find their children – and even themselves – falling victim to alarming physical and mental afflictions. That desperate situation pushes them to consider desperate ideas about what it is, exactly, that’s attacking their family and desperate measures about how to stop it.
The latest creation of Legion and Priest director Scott Stewart, Dark Skies is easily commendable for being Stewart’s best genre-blending experiment; though that’s not to say it’s an outstanding movie. A somewhat slow build to a predictable and underwhelming conclusion, the film is nonetheless a satisfyingly creepy ride – even if the ultimate destination isn’t all that exciting.
Where Legion and Priest attempted to offer the sort of action/horror blockbuster experience of a Resident Evil flick (low-hanging fruit…), Dark Skies instead takes the sci-fi premise of an alien abduction story and conveys it in the crescendo format of Paranormal Activity and all its many copycats within the found-footage horror (not so coincidentally, the movie is produced by the makers of PA, Sinister, Insidious, etc…). Thankfully we have no faux-documentary headaches to worry about here, but the night-to-night episodic progression of frights certainly carries the thumbprint of the currently popular sub-genre of horror filmmaking.
Stewart and cinematographer David Boyd (Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy and the upcoming Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D. TV pilot) certainly create a darkly rich visual palette that entices the eye. In other words: the film is great to look at, and the use of light, shadow, tracking and angling makes many of the nighttime (and daytime) scares pretty effective, if occasionally telegraphed. “Scares” might be a strong word; “creep outs” or “eye openers” is probably more accurate description of what this movie offers. More goosebumps than screams.
Our director is also our script writer and Stewart also turns in what is arguably his best work (thus far) in this area, as well. There is actual relatable and grounded family drama at the core of this scary story – keeping things interesting even when the terror is on the off-beat, and making the moments of terror or danger that more compelling because the investment in the characters (the family) is solid.
While the characters themselves are only so-so in terms of dimension or depth, they’re far better than the average thin caricatures trotted out for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, the biggest reveals of the story are foreshadowed too early and way too obviously; by the time we actually get to the “climax,” we’re mostly there for validation rather than shock or surprise. An epilogue section to the film further adds an unneeded dose of hokeyness to what was (up to that point) an effectively spooky experience. That all said, Dark Skies does pull off some narrative and character arcs that are competent and complete.
The individual characters in the Barrett family are also more likable thanks to some solid actors in the roles. Keri Russell may not win big accolades for Dark Skies, but no one told her that beforehand; she carries the bulk of the intensity and pulls off the increasingly panic-stricken matriarch arc without a hint of overacting or melodrama. In many ways she bolsters the core aspects of the narrative – though her co-star Josh Hamilton (Away We Go) is certainly there to lend a hand. Hamilton has to play the down-and-out skeptic, but manages to bring hints of real depth and vulnerability to the patriarch role. All in all, the family dynamics rest on a sound foundation.
Real Steel star Dakota Goyo has talent, and offers a nicely layered portrait of a modern young teen as Jesse. When the latter half of the narrative opens up a bit to include more of young Jesse, Goyo certainly holds up his end. Kadan Rockett is too young to match the acting savvy of his co-stars, but is yet another good casting as a kid who can easily oscillate between creepy and cute – a quality which serves in delivering some of the film’s freakiest moments. Other actors like JK Simmons (Spider-Man<) show up here and there, but Stewart smartly keeps the focus on the Barretts for most of the screen time.
In the end, Dark Skies will be a pretty good time for anyone who understands what they’re getting with this sci-fi/horror fence-rider. Hardcore fans of either genre are not likely to be satisfied with the half bits the film provides – and the ending will shock (or thrill) very few viewers. A strong rental or matinee experience; questionable call for that prime time or late-night theatrical fright flick thrill.
Dark Skies is now playing in theaters. It is 97 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for violence, terror throughout, sexual material, drug content and language – all involving teens.