It’s not often that I choose to review something that doesn’t hit the mark. Maybe it’s my Southern upbringing, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” being drummed into me from an early age.
But the SF film DARK SKIES (in theaters now) deserves a word or two even if it misses the target of entertaining its audience by a light year. The film is worthy of discussion not only because it covers familiar ground of alien abduction, but also because I think—and I may be guessing here—writer-director Scott Stewart tried to do something different with this story of a family under siege from probing extraterrestrials.
On the surface, this tale of suburbanites and their close encounters with not-so-nice ETs is a hodgepodge of tropes and stock characters lifted from earlier films and SF culture. As such the script almost reads like a beginner’s ode to Spielberg, with a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY twist: Daniel and Lacy Barrett (Josh Hamilton and Keri Russell) live in the California suburbs with their two sons, Jesse, 13,(Dakota Goyo) and Sam, 7 (Kadan Rockett). Jesse and Sam are close, reading old-school SF and exchanging “secret messages” between “space bases” from their beds at night on their portable radios. Cute.
Until Sam starts saying that their “enemy”, the Sandman, has been visiting him at night. For real. Then things start getting weird. Mom goes downstairs in the middle of the night to find the back door open and the fridge emptied onto the kitchen floor. A few nights later all the contents of all the cupboards are used to create an elaborate geomathmatical sculpture. Police are called, kids are interrogated, family is freaked out, neighbors are talking—you get the picture.
Then the birds—three flocks of them from different parts of the state—arrive to smash themselves to death against the house. Now the neighbors really don’t want to have anything to do with these people! And little Sam is starting to have “episodes” at the park—screaming, not responsive. And the bruises—where did they come from?
Well, you can see where this is going. Those nasty aliens don’t stop with Sam. Soon Mom is losing time, too. And her job. Which is where the film gets interesting.
From the beginning we’ve seen that this family presents itself to the world as being just like any other family in its middle-class neighborhood, but, in truth, long before “aliens” burst in from above, pressures of a much more mundane nature are eating away at the foundations of the home they’ve built together. Daniel has lost his job as an architect. Worse, he is lying to his wife about his lack of luck finding a new one. Lacy is trying to bring home the bacon as a realtor in a moribund real estate market, stuck with the job of unloading the neighborhood’s worst property, a dump the local kids (including her own son) use as a party house for drugs and sex. The couple fights, while the boys worry if they will divorce like other moms and dads they know. And Jesse, well, Jesse is thirteen. Did I mention the drugs and sex?
Some of the pressures the Barretts are facing are external—the economy, Jesse’s stupid friends—but the key one is internal—can they trust each other? So when this family is attacked from way outside, they don’t automatically band together to fight the alien threat. Their first reaction is to turn on each other—husband against wife (he can’t believe this is an alien problem; she’s clear what they’re facing); son against parents (did I mention he’s 13? Of course they’re ruining his life!); and the little guy obviously needs a therapist!
This nugget of a family in trouble is much more interesting than the SF-flavored gelatin in which it is found. This is even more true because the actors, particularly Keri Russell as Lacy and young Dakota Goyo as Jesse, are compelling and believable, rising so far above the material as to bring the stuff up with them. Science fiction on the screen is too often about the effects—what does the monster or the spaceship look like? Can we create (and then destroy) a spectacular world? In this case, we are asked to consider what effect the aliens are having within a very small scope, that of a single family. We see the dynamics here very clearly, thanks largely to the actors. It is a different perspective, at least.
But, of course, the Barretts don’t self-destruct completely. Leave it to the aliens (and the equally ham-fisted writers) to show their hands in a series of scary moves that convince a skeptical Daniel to take Lacy’s advice and seek the help of the nearest alien expert (J.K. Simmons). In yet another example of what-not-to-do-in-a-book-or-film, the expert explains at length What Is Going On, to wit: your family has been chosen by the Grays (Yes! Those Grays!), for study, for fun, we’re not really sure. But once you’ve been chosen, that’s pretty much it for you. And the increase in activity means they’re about to take someone. Sorry.
Is there nothing we can do? the anxious couple begs.
You can fight, the expert advises.
I’ll spare you the outcome of the brave family’s battle with the evil aliens in their suburban fortress. It’s not exactly DIE HARD, YOU ALIEN B@#$%*&S! but the Barretts put up a good fight. The filmmaker indulges himself with a few little twists at the end. It is science fiction, after all, even if it is derivative and somewhat old school.
And like much of that kind of SF, there may be a lot to criticize, but there is also something to think about. Maybe not worth ten bucks at the multiplex, but definitely worth a look on pay-per-view or Netflix.