Skies’ director Scott Stewart makes an easy target because of his critically
reviled previous films, Legion and
Priest. I counter that he actually possesses a copious
amount of talent. He just hasn’t created a satisfying film with it. In all three
instances, the potential for greatness was there.
All three displayed short
bursts of solid filmmaking, a bit of technical flourish and ideas that – while
hardly genius – at least held the potential for some good popcorn fun. Dark
Skies reaches for quality that seems well within its grasp, only to fail in
the most exasperating ways.
You’re not going to get a whole
lot of mileage over the old alien abduction scenario, but Stewart promises to
make it happen. He presents a normal family dealing with normal issues, then
slowly puts them through a series of scenarios convincing them that they have
been targeted by something . . . else. It starts out like a prank. Photos vanish
from their frames, food arranges itself in strange stacks, the local dogs start
freaking out, and so on. Pretty soon, it gets serious, with chunks of time lost
and strange bruises showing up on the kids’ bodies. It’s only a matter of time
before the lights in the sky show up and start sucking out some brains.
We know where it’s going, but
Stewart actually wrings some genuine scares out of it thanks to good set-ups and
a knack for atmosphere. He handles the greys’ appearance with surprising
effectiveness, balancing overt scares with hints and suggestions in marvelous
ways. As individual scenes, each bit works quite well. The problem comes when
Dark Skies needs to take them somewhere. We feel no sense of build-up, no
progression to an anticipated conclusion. Just the same basic “look who’s in the
house” scenario played over and over again.
"Not a terrible movie, but a frustrating one!"
That goes on far too long for
comfort, followed by a fumbled rush for clarity that quickly destroys any
audience good will. While we know that aliens have targeted the family, we don’t
understand why . . . nor what they hope to achieve by toying with them before
unleashing their evil plan.
J.K. Simmons dutifully arrives
as a former victim of an abduction, unloading messy piles of exposition before
vanishing again and leaving the heroes to their fate. A big twist supposedly
follows, but Dark Skies failed to set us up for it properly, leaving us
with a “mindblower” that fails to impress us simply because we’re not certain
why it’s such a big deal.
That letdown hurts all the more
because it’s completely unnecessary. A little more care in the film’s
development might have done wonders, as could the more casual scares intended to
jolt us along the way. Stewart even finds an intriguing subtext, with normal
fears like unemployment and troubled children underscored by the greys’ seeming
omnipotence in their lives. The idea could have served as a strong engine
driving the scares, while an improved structure would have turned a random
narrative into something worth paying attention to. Dark Skies shows us
glimpses of the movie it could have been before squandering it all on silly
misfires and a lack of overall thrust.
This director has the potential
to go places. He knows the stories he wants to tell and he possesses enough
skill with the camera to deliver them to us. Somewhere along the way it all gets
lost. Dark Skies isn’t a terrible movie, but it ultimately becomes a very
frustrating one. Were it simply bad, we could dismiss it and move on. Instead,
it wastes its own potential right in front of our eyes, enticing us with its
potential before completely falling apart. Someday, this director is really
going to blow our socks off. Sadly, that day will have to wait a little while