Written and directed by Scott Stewart
With Keri Russell (Lacy Barrett), Josh Hamilton (Daniel Barrett), Dakota Goyo (Jesse Barrett), Kaden Rockett (Sam Barrett)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Jason Blum is a rare bird, a producer who is not only commercially marketable, but whose marketability is totally justifiable. He's not marketable by name (yet), but by reputation: what you actually see on the poster is “from the producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious [and/or Sinister],” but it does get people interested. This kind of marketing is hardly novel, but ordinarily the actual "producer of" credit is etched onto the poster using IBM’s atomic data storage technology, and almost always these other movies bear the most tenuous of relationships to the movie being sold, that relationship being merely that the same salesman managed to sell each product. This isn't the case with Blum: he could be an even rarer bird, the producer who could almost be considered an auteur in his own right.
Blum’s produced a lot of movies, dating back to 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, which I’ve never even heard of but evidently Steve Martin did, kickstarting the young Blum’s career. His second film arrived five years later, 2000’s temporal displacement of Hamlet starring one Ethan Hawke, and, while its fruition would be delayed by over a decade, this would eventually turn out to be an artistically and financially profitable association. He never really hit it big, though, of course, until Paranormal Activity, which suddenly put Blum on top of the world as the producer of the most profitable movie in film history (with an ROI of 1,288,360%). With this success, a business model was born.
Blum’s goldflake-laced bread and butter since then has been the small-budget horror movies he’s done through his Blumhouse production company. More specifically, it's been the best kind of horror movie, the haunted house movie. Blumhouse has ushered in a renaissance for this delightful Mandelbrot set of a subgenre. Dark Skies is the seventh on the list of Jason Blum's bad houses (with many more on the way).
Also a Blumhouse picture. But wait. Supernatural force? Check. Invading homes? Check. After the children? Check. 1,288,360% return on investment? They can't all be winners.
A current thruline has been established by these movies: families in suburban isolation disrupted by the intrusion of uncontrollable forces, often dealt with poorly by patriarchal or parental authority corrupted by ambition, ignorance, or necessity (i.e., snark-snark, they’re haunted house movies). The forces that face these families are most often demonic, but one of the more interesting things about so many of the Blumhouse movies is how the economy itself is monsterized. The idea seems to be that every house is haunted these days.
And, in colloboration with Rob Zombie, there's a Blumhouse movie that proves that apartments aren't safe either, which is bad news for me.
Blumhouse's success with its parade of mortgagor horribles has not been total, but it has been substantial. I liked the Paranormals I’ve seen. I much enjoyed Insidious. The Purge for its weaknesses, had heart, even if it was hamstrung by its Blumhouse budget (while the threat to the family was mortal there, as a home invasion movie, it shares much common DNA with the haunted house film). Finally, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister unleashed the supernatural talent that is Ethan Hawke back upon the mortal world. Sinister was good enough to be one of my three favorite movies of 2012. Take that Cabin in the Woods. Hell, take that Avengers. Take that, Joss Whedon.
So what about the Blumhouse joint whose theatrical release I missed?
Sums it up, yeah.
When I first saw the trailer for Dark Skies, I experienced about thirty seconds of pure joy because I thought they were making a movie of the Garfield Reeves-Stevens novel of the same name. Then the trailer went on, and I realized this was not the same story. Then I looked it up later, and I realized that the novel is called Nighteyes. Maybe they should look into making fewer Scott Stewart scripts (e.g., Legion), and more adaptations of books whose names I can't remember and that I had nightmares about when I was thirteen.
Um. Yeah, actually, that's more or less the plot as my thirteen year old self recorded it. I mean, that plus aliens.
Instead of being awesome, then, Dark Skies is a speculative fiction about a dystopia in which Steven Spielberg drowned during the filming of Jaws, Ray Santilli never "reconstructed" any footage of any autopsies, and The X-Files did not have a nine year run on national television.
Living in this bleak, Duchovniless world are the Barretts, our victims du film. They’re not doing so hot. Dark Skies doesn’t background the middle-class economic malaise that is such a draw, at least for me, to Blumhouse product. To paint a picture of their situation, it’s 2012. Mom Lacy is a realtor. You’re still laughing? Fair enough. She’s the sole breadwinner. I know. It gets better. She’s the sole breadwinner because Dad Daniel is a laid-off architect. I’m convinced there’s a cut scene where one of these people talk about enrolling in law school. Probably the nearest Thomas Cooley franchise.
The children do not appear to be engaged in the pursuit of professions in decline, though there are suggestions older boy Jesse and younger son Sam want to be astronauts. Credit them, though: they stand a significantly stronger chance of going to space than Lacy does of selling a house or Daniel does of building one.
I did enjoy very much the strained dynamic Stewart establishes, and the feeling he evokes of being trapped in an economy we never made. The cast carries their scenes of financial dread pretty well. Unfortunately, no cast, perhaps not even one featuring Sir Ethan Hawke, could push the supernatural horror we came to see, not all the way to the finish line—at least not with this material.
Things do get going quickly, which makes it such a shame that our protagonists are so slow. There’s a not-very-fine line between preoccupied and stupid, and they stand astride that line like a derping colossus.
The fam wakes up in the night to find their kitchen raided by an unknown perpetrator. They assume it’s at worst just a desultory break-in (perhaps by a homeless pig fleeing the Alpha Betas), and most likely just a sleepwalking incident, so they call the cops, and basically say fuck it. So far, so fair, and honestly I’m relieved that Keri Russell isn’t forced to be complete wiener about it, in typical Movie Mom fashion. A new night brings new trouble, though: an elaborate assembly of every piece of glassware stacked Poltergeist-style, except when the kitchen lights shine through it, it forms upon the ceiling a geometric pattern of mechanical precision and what, in our universe, would be blindingly obvious origin.
The pyramids: were they the work of ancient somnambulists?
An hour and many barely-metaphorical sharpied penises on their heads later, Lacy suggests the possibility that maybe, just maybe, their troubles are not of this world. For context, Daniel has just, moments earlier, blacked out, walked outside, gushed blood like a geyser out his nose, and returned to consciousness unaware of how he got where he is. When she tells him what she thinks, he calls her insane. It’s at this point that the movie just broke me, I paused it, and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Nobody is this unemployed.
But leaving this be, the movie could be very interesting at turns, particularly in how the neighbors grow suspicious and hostile toward the increasingly strange things that happen to the Barretts, particularly in the way that alien-induced trauma to the children is perceived as its more plausible terrestrial counterpart.
The child actors playing the boys are effective in creating these socially-embarrassing, reasonable suspicion-generating moments. It’s easy to get me to not want bad things to happen to children in the abstract, but child performances have a funny way of undermining basic human empathy for minors. So it speaks at least one small volume that when Sam, after uncontrollably urinating in a public park, starts screaming his head off, I was genuinely scared for him, and not annoyed (or laughing). I wasn't even offended when, of course, Sam has been making pictures of tall, thin, nondescript mystery men since he was a fetus.
Blumhouse style: I don’t think one of these movies goes by without the kids doing creepy drawings that should always really signal more is afoot than meets the eye to any non-terrible parental figure.
And Dakota Goyo is good as Jesse, high school loser never made it with a lady till his boys told him there was something he missed. He sells a sexual terror that I, obviously, can’t relate to, but which I understood, entirely—entirely I told you—through his acting.
Lessons in A+ structure: bearing in mind that this follows immediately upon the part where Sam wets himself, you can understand when I tell you that the scene where Jesse gets his first kiss is the most terrifying part of the movie. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
Their interplay as brothers is warm and affecting, too, and does lead into one of the film's best moments, its very last, where it claws back a smidgen of the respect it loses in the interim.
And, yes, I'm avoiding it: it is impossible for me to tell you that the aliens—the iconic Grays themselves—are not creepy. So creepy, in fact, that writing this my skin crawls thinking about them.
But the thing is, as scary as the idea of aliens just fucking with us arguably is, there’s something a little stupid about beings with such enormous power using it to put ants under a magnifying glass on a summer day. Stewart is smart enough to be aware of that, so via a well-put-together and subdued J.K. Simmons cameo, we—well, they—are finally introduced to the standard abduction plot. We first learn that, unlike dogs, cats don't care about alien intruders, which means that contact with Melmac must never have been made in this universe, either. More importantly, we're told, the aliens have a vast and unknowable design for their human victims.
Well, I cannot say that it is ontologically unknowable; I can state definitely that Scott Stewart does not know what it is. So he falls back on a mixed bag of genre tropes, many of which don’t go together in the first place, and very few of which have anything to do with the subject of his movie (like boarding the windows and doors, since Dan may've gotten confused again, and thought he was fighting zombies).
The idea of using the Gray menace for horror is of course not remotely new—Fire in the Sky is how many years old?—but it’s rare enough, especially a decade and a half after the alien abduction heyday, that I was into it even if I had to pretend this is in fact the alien planet, where only crackpots have ever heard of the term “implant." The idea of marrying it specifically to the haunted house form does not suggest any obvious antecedents; so points there for originality.
But if you are a screenwriter wanting to put a cosmic twist on the formula, you must adapt the formula to meet the requirements of your twist. The rule of escalation that works so well in a haunted house qua haunted house movie just does not function at all here. I believe you when you say that Toby, Bagul, or a Sith Lord must husband their forces before breaking through into our reality. I don’t believe that an alien needs to steal your salad mix first when it has a functioning teleporter.
"Hey, human. A teleporter is no substitute for a sense of showmanship."
So: if you can handle horror with profoundly stupid characters and dilettantish monsters, the effective jump scares and frightening imagery may do it for you. But I doubt it. Keep watching the skis.