There is not a single shred of originality in Dark Skies sleek, blackened shell. It's not an automatic negative of this film, or any other really, but when the advertising proudly displays the producer over any of the other creative talent I get suspicious, even when that same producer funded Insidious and Paranomal Activity. Insidious was one of the best horror films in recent years and I know that the PA series has its fans (I'm definitely not one).
This film is a humorless dirge spliced together from the DNA of those and many other films. It's the kind of story caked in darkness not for any thematic effect, but because it's the easiest way to get something to make its characters pop out into the night. Any confidence I developed in director Scott Stewart's control of the tone of his film disappeared with some hilariously overwrought shots.
Picture an idyllic neighborhood and the camera centers on a "For Sale" sign in someone's front yard. This, on its own, is notable enough to queue the loud ominous groan on the soundtrack. The horror moves on to the next shot, an old woman watching television which is an event so terrifying the wail comes roaring back. Finally the most terrifying shot of all, children playing in a swimming pool, an image so loaded in horrific potential the moan of the music overwhelms the scene yet again. These are not images worthy of the death that pervades the soundtrack, and little that follows will prove worthy of the same.
The stage is one that a less histrionic film might have found some success with. Daniel (Josh Hamilton) was recently laid off from his job leaving his wife Lacy (Keri Russell) the sole beneficiary of a household he already is starting to feel less welcome in. Sensing the tension are the eldest son Jesse (Dakota Goyo), going through his own issues with puberty and younger brother Sammy (Kadan Rockett) who is having nightmares involving The Sandman.
This apparition starts to make its presence known first by eating all the vegetables in the refrigerator, then by making complex structures with the kitchen ware at night. If you're a careful student of horror, particular of the slow burning kind the film attempts, then you might think these scenes are a bit over the top coming so soon. They are, piled one right after the other, going two or three steps too far into the direction of crafted absurdity instead of eerie detail.
Noticing some things missing or odd shapes around the house is one thing. Complex geometric arrangements that an engineer would have difficulty crafting without the aid of glue is something else altogether. Then they just pile on the overkill with an overly condescending cop who shows up just to smile smugly at the very worried parents, even after every security alarm in their home goes off, and chuckle that kids do the darndest things in their sleep. This same cop just reminds us of how overdone these events are when he laughs yet again at the sudden disappearance of roughly 50 pictures from the family room.
Then, with a total lack of concern for continuity shared among the other supporting players, he just disappears never seen or heard from again. Considering a follow-up scene straining for family abuse metaphors which involves a parent who discovers bruises up and down Sammy's body so extensive he appears to have leprosy. This seems like a job for a cop but, nah, why investigate plausible abuse when you can just write him in to laugh about sleep sculpting.
Slow burning horror is not piling climaxes on top of each other hoping one would be scary. A scene mid-film involving a bird flying into the home, killing itself, might have been effective if it was not immediately followed by handfuls and then dozens of birds doing the same thing. A couple of animal suicides is enough to show us something is amiss, when the film is pushing a whole species I get the sensation that it's trying too hard.
In one sense, I respect that Scott Stewart is pushing his own climactic boundaries with each over the top scene. In another, it shows just how lacking in self-awareness he has about the project. For all the horror films he liberally borrows from he forgets that many used a sense of humor in some way. I cannot believe that someone tried to explain the bird suicides through dialogue like "The Best thing I could figure out is that something's messing with the Earth's geomagnetic field" without once considering the farcical value of that moment, especially when it's still shrouded in darkness.
I would have loved to see the cop do a running commentary on the film, especially when J.K. Simmons shows up as an alien obsessed with children who have disappeared. In another testament to how little this film is willing to subdue itself the old man has almost a hundred cases on his wall. What if the cop stumbled on this crime scene?
"No need to bother folks, this is just an ol' timer takin' an interest in the youth of the nation."
We could only be so lucky.