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Skyline

Director: The Brothers Strause
Cast: Eric Balfour, Donald Faison, Brittany Daniel, Scottie Thompson, Crystal Reed, David Zayas

(Universal; US theatrical: 12 Nov 2010; UK theatrical: 12 Nov 2010; 2010)

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In Skyline, invading aliens use shiny lights to transfix humans into a stupor, then abduct them and suck out their brains. The directors of the movie, the Brothers Strause, use strikingly similar methods. Colin and Greg Strause have designed visual effects for countless movies, some impressive (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Avatar), others less so (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Here, directing their own movie, they summon all of their effects prowess to produce a large-scale alien invasion on a budget, sucking sci-fi fans into a limited-location thriller of astounding stupidity.


After throwing out some bright lights for a prologue, the movie backs up a few hours to find Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his lady Elaine (Scottie Thompson) arriving in Los Angeles to visit his childhood friend Terry (Donald Faison). Terry works in the movie business; he might be an associate producer, though the film remains murky on that point. He lives in an place referred to as a penthouse, but actually seems to be a reasonably nice apartment on the top floor of a reasonably nice complex. Much of the action during the first 20 minutes takes place at Terry’s “penthouse” party, and for a little while, it seems as if Skyline will look upon its subjects with at least a cursory degree of class consciousness, watching how a bunch of Hollywood hangers-on manage an alien apocalypse.


Sticking with these characters suggests a limited-perspective take on the material, akin to Cloverfield or Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. And the fact that almost the entire movie winds up taking place in the apartment building points to an urban (and more diversely populated) version of Signs. Any of this might work if the Strause Brothers showed any aptitude for suspense, but their approach to Skyline makes the single location seem like a function of good old-fashioned cheapness, rather than an inventive solution to a low budget.


The premise calls for vivid characters but the Strauses show little interest in their humans, apart from underscoring Jarrod’s brooding, honorable masculinity and, like a stalker movie,  punishing the promiscuous and the anonymous. Every time it appears that someone might become interesting, as when Terry’s hilariously surly wife Candice (Brittany Daniel) takes charge of an escape attempt, the movie blocks the potential trajectory with generic alien marauding. At one point, the survivors gather to stare at a military counter-attack on the alien ships taking place outside the apartment complex: basically, they pause to watch another, more exciting movie.


Then the movie breaks perspective entirely and cuts to the middle of the action, exactly the kind of macro-view cheat that movies like Worlds or Cloverfield resisted. It’s in this moment that the Brothers Strause betray what seems to be their true intention, to make a rock-em-sock-em monster mash rather than a tense invasion thriller. The aliens, which look sort of like gigantic versions of the visitors from Batteries Not Included with bonus tentacles and vaginas, have more personality and mystery than anyone else onscreen and when, in its final 20 minutes, Skyline becomes the kind of grungy, gnarly B-movie it could have been the whole time, it also gets sort of fun. Still not suspenseful, mind you, but fast-paced and less predictable.


But for some reason, the Strauses didn’t actually make that movie. Instead, they made one with a lot of bickering about whether or not to leave the building. Given the lunacy of the film’s final plot turns—the revelation of what the aliens want with the humans has a grotesque sci-fi creepiness—the rest of Skyline feels cautious, as if the filmmakers weren’t sure what they could afford financially or bring off artistically.


The result is a lamely acted, poorly written, $10 million direct-to-DVD movie with major distribution. As such, it provides fairly spectacular visuals, almost comparable big-studio movies that cost three or four times as much. The effects are, if not seamless, respectable and believable. It’s the rest of the movie that looks fudged.

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