Review Date: July 9, 2013
Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: May 28, 2013
Codec: AVC, 1080p
Widescreen 2.40 | 16x9: Yes
The alien abduction subgenre is one thatís always left me cold, I think, because I find the prospect of extra-terrestrials too exciting to be scared. The ramifications of the existence of life beyond our solar system would quickly numb any initial shock I experienced. It seems xenophobic to me to assume that any alien would have sinister or malicious intent towards humanity. To abduct someone, study them and then return them to where you found them is hardly a worse crime than humans have perpetrated on animals for centuries and seems borne out of a thirst for knowledge, not a thirst for blood. When my schoolmates were cringing in fear at Fire in the Sky
, I was secretly hoping the aliens would take me next. I think thatís why Close Encounters of the Third Kind
remains my favourite film on the subject. It does a good job of exploiting the terror of having an unknown force abduct your child but, by the end of the movie, everybody is staring wide eyed and mouths agape at the gentle aliens and their majestic starship.
Which brings me to Dark Skies
, the latest sci-fi horror cross-pollination to revolve around the subject of abduction. I knew going in that it would have to pull double duty to totally win me over. Itís not entirely successful; itís also far more effective than I would have expected. It actually boasts a few genuinely well-crafted shocks, but in the end it never manages to truly frighten or disturb due to the overly familiar nature of its material.
The Barrett family is on the brink of collapse. Dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton
) is a laid off architect getting frustrated at the lack of jobs available to him while mom Lacy (Keri Russell
) is taking on extra real estate work in an effort to hold things together. Their eldest son Jesse (Dakota Goyo
) is starting to feel the pangs of adolescence and is not making things easier on his parents with his mood swings and rebellious behaviour. If that wasnít enough on their plate, their youngest son Sam (Kadan Rockett
Öno, I did not make that up) is seeing a shadowy figure he dubs ďThe SandmanĒ in his room at night.
At first Samís stories are dismissed by his parents as products of his imagination, the natural consequence of his older brother telling him scary stories via walkie-talkie when theyíre both supposed to be asleep. Samís visitations are soon followed by a series of seemingly inexplicable events: an unknown intruder raids the fridge at night, the alarm system seems to constantly be malfunctioning and, most disconcertingly, three separate flocks of birds converge on the Barrett home and pummel themselves to death against the windows and siding (one of the filmís best moments).
When Lacy ďloses timeĒ in front of some potential clients and wakes up hours later with a mysterious bruise on her forehead she begins to suspect that the misfortunes plaguing her family are not just random coincidence.
Josh is skeptical that their family is being targeted by a malevolent force but he quickly becomes more receptive to Lacyís theorizing when he catches a glimpse of Samís shadowy ďSandmanĒ on the familyís home surveillance system. The couple seek the counsel of Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons
), an ďexpertĒ in these types of phenomena. His news is hardly comforting: he believes that one of the Barrett sons has been targeted for abduction by ďthe grays,Ē vicious aliens waging a campaign of terror on the family in an effort to divide them from one another. On the Fourth of July weekend the family fortifies their home, digs in and prepares to do battle with the evil extraterrestrials.
If youíre thinking to yourself that none of this sounds terribly original, youíre 100% spot-on. Dark Skies
is almost a textbook case study in familiar genre tropes. Thatís not to say that Dark Skies
never works. Quite the contrary it serves as an object lesson in, when well-staged and executed, just how effective those tropes can be. Itís to Dark Skies
í credit that its scares work as well as they do since weíve all seen these situations countless times before. Problem is that Dark Skies
continually goes on for a beat too long. It lets the tension dissipate between scare scenes and makes one of the parents a stereotypically slow study when it comes to acknowledging the otherworldly causes behind the events unfolding around him. The film runs 97 minutes and could have used a bit more trimming. It also doesnít help that Dark Skies
telegraphs the resolution to its mystery in both its title and the opening text so the audience has to watch the characters onscreen play catch up to what we already know.
Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton give solid, believable performances, although Hamilton is saddled with the role of cemented-headed cynic; for once Iíd like to see a cinematic couple that are realistically, skeptical open-minded, rather than one-note ďbelieverĒ and ďcynicĒ roles weíve seen too many times before. Russell fares much better, and her transition into belief is much smoother and more believable. The younger actors are not quite so solid, but neither are they annoying, and the film does provide the elder son a few moments that perfectly capture the awkward transitional moments between childhood and adolescence, especially the scene following Jesseís first kiss.
tries a bit too hard to be topical: the family in economic crisis mightíve been an interesting slant if anything was made of it, but itís just window dressing for the otherworldly proceedings. It would have maybe driven the scares home a bit harder if the familyís financial situation was somehow related to the harassment they suffer at the hands of the grays. Thereís a nice subtext to be mined in a family being targeted because theyíre already vulnerable that would have provided the film a bit more texture.
Thereís enough groundwork laid in the first two acts that inevitable twist at the end of the film feels earned. Perhaps a bit too much groundwork is laid, since when the big reveal arrives, itís not terribly surprising. Stewart borrows liberally from Poltergeist
throughout the film, right down to cribbing some of the sound design (which is fine by me; if youíre going to copy, copy from the best). The lifts are so blatant, though, that anyone familiar with the 1982 Spielberg production will be able to anticipate the final reveal in Dark Skies
. Still, itís better than some arbitrary, out of left field attempt to shock the audience.
Whatís frustrating is that Stewart isnít bringing this level of directorial skill to fresher, more exciting material. Dark Skies
might be the best cinematic bologna sandwich ever but, at the end of the day, itís still a bologna sandwich and will never be able to compete with filet mignon. To torture the metaphor even further: youíll never be able to make a steak out of bologna; next time Stewart tries to make a cinematic shocker, I hope his starting point is a nice big slab of grade-A prime rib.
Okay, now Iím hungry.
This is a handsome presentation. Though much of the film is, by design, drenched in shadow, detail never lacks. The daytime scenes have a pleasant, warm late summer yellow tinge to them. There isnít an overwhelming preponderance of bright colors in the palette but those that are there never experience bleeding or smearing. While itís not shot in full on shaky cam, there is a jitteriness to the cinematography that can sometimes wreak havoc with compression but thatís never an issue here. Dark Skies
is presented in an AVC transfer that is given lots of room to breathe. You may not dig the movie, but not much bad can be said about its visual presentation.
For a movie like this, sound design is as, if not more, important than the visuals, and the Dark Skies
Blu-ray comes up aces in this department as well. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio manages to complement the onscreen action and generate a few good jumps of its own thanks to sparse but effective use of the surround channels. Dialogue is always crisp and audible, and outdoor scenes have a lively surround presence that offers atmosphere without ever calling attention to itself.
There are no other language tracks, though, and only Spanish subtitles, which Iíd usually count as a big detraction from this release. With a film this sparse on dialogue, however, itís a minor annoyance instead of a serious flaw.
isnít packed with feature so fans of the film may come away from this release disappointed; for the casual viewer, thereís more than enough extra material.
I didnít hold high hopes for the audio commentary with Writer/Director Scott Stewart, Producer Jason Blum, Executive Producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Editor Peter Gvozdas. When a commentary is that packed with participants that far removed from both the conception and day to day making of the movie, the result tends to be dry. Not so, in the case of Dark Skies
. This is really director Stewartís show with producer Blum acting like a moderator, spurring him on with questions while Kavanaugh-Jones and Gvozdas offering their two cents only occasionally. The result is a very informative track thatís far more focused than I would have expected. Fun fact: Skies was originally conceived as a found footage film until producer Blum convinced Stewart to go with a traditional narrative. Iím glad he did: the film is better for it.
The only other supplement is fourteen minutes of Alternate and Deleted Scenes. Mostly small snippets and scene extensions, itís not tough to see why they were cut, though theyíre worth watching for a tiny bit of extra alien action.
Director Scott Stewart previously helmed the ridiculous, but not unentertaining, Legion, and the atrocious 3D comic book adaptation, Priest. Dark Skies
is by far his most accomplished work to date. It shows heís matured as a director and is capable of wringing genuine suspense, and even a few good shocks, from familiar set ups. Skies
represents the smallest budget the former FX-artist has had to work with, around $3 million and itís proof positive that heís got directing chops.
For all its good points, though, the end product is one of those in between movies that itís hard to really say much about; itís well executed for the most part but overly familiar and, in the end, pretty forgettable. If youíre looking for something spooky but mostly harmless and inoffensive to tingle the spines of a gaggle of tween aged horror fans this Halloween, you could do worse than renting Dark Skies
for them. If youíre looking for a truly terrifying alien abduction movie, youíll still need to keep watching the skies for that.
Movie - C+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - A-
Supplements - B-
- * Colour
* Running time - 1 hour and 37 minutes
* Rated PG-13, 14A
* 2 Discs (1 Blu-ray, 1 DVD)
* Chapter Stops
* English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
* Spanish subtitles
- * Commentary with Writer/Director Scott Stewart, Producer Jason Blum, Executive Producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Editor Peter Gvozdas
* Alternate and Deleted Scenes