Silver Screen: Dark Skies **1/2
It takes about an hour for the modestly effective, cheapie horror flick Dark Skies to come right out and say it’s about aliens. If that was supposed to be some kind of secret, the promotional campaign did a pretty poor job of keeping it. The poster features teenage costar Dakota Goyo gazing upward as if he’s being pulled toward the heavens, punctuated by the tagline “Once you’ve been chosen, you belong to them.” Between that and the title, what else, exactly, are we supposed to expect?
Dark Skies’ primary gimmick seems to be mashing up tropes from haunted-house and alien-abduction movies. Mashing up tropes is the nice way to put it; mashing up clichés is another way. The blend of two familiar genres yields little in the way of novelty, but it’s effectively staged enough to be modestly scary and passably entertaining on its way to a frustratingly ineffective climax that is enough to make viewers wonder why the protagonists bothered trying to protag at all.
Goyo’s Jesse Barrett is a fairly typical, moody teen living in the kind of idyllic version of suburbia that only seems to exist to be corrupted in movies. His little brother (Kadan Rockett) is experiencing strange, somnambulistic fits and complains about a Sandman who comes and stands over his bed at night. This concerns parents Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton of Kicking and Screaming), a realtor and a laid-off architect, who are already under financial stress in the struggling economy.
A bizarre series of escalating incidents prompts Lacy to do what all leads in modern movies must eventually do: Google the mysterious happenings around them and, via a montage of clicking and thoughtfully frowning, print out a few pages of exposition. This leads Ma and Pa Barrett to the inevitable eccentric expert, a stock character imbued with a little gravitas here thanks to overqualified bit player J.K. Simmons. He lays out the rules for dealing with invaders from outer space, which the Barretts can follow or spurn at their own risk.
Dark Skies is far from inspired, but it is competent. Writer/director Scott Stewart’s last two efforts, Legion and Priest, were dismal horror-tinged action movies overloaded with cheap computer effects. Here Stewart leans more on shadows, suspense, and implication, and when the aliens do arrive they’re blessedly puppeteered for the most part rather than slickly digitized. And unlike Legion and Priest, Dark Skies at least makes an effort at character development. Jesse’s awkward flirtations with a pretty neighbor girl (Annie Thurman) and his unsteady friendship with the local bad seed (L.J. Benet) are more convincing that the elder Barretts’ economic woes and marital strife. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t focus more on the kids, even if the lead actors are perfectly capable.
But ultimately Stewart is trying to scare us with strange happenings-- mysteriously rearranged kitchen furniture, alarm systems tripped when no figures are visible, a flock of birds crashing into the windows-- that simply aren’t unknown to audiences, but are in fact painfully familiar. By the time Hamilton’s scruffy stay-at-home dad installs a series of video cameras to capture the action in the house, anyone who’s been frequenting the theater for the last ten years can’t help but yawn in anticipation of more Paranormal Activity-style found footage.
What we fear most is the unknown. You won’t find any of that here.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.