STARRING: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L.J. Benet

2013, 95 Minutes, Directed by:
Scott Stewart

Dark 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 longer.


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