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Skyline

Director: Colin Strause, Greg Strause
Cast: Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Crtystal Reed, David Zayas, Donald Faison

(Universal; US DVD: 22 Mar 2011)

You've Seen this Movie Before

Okay, you know going in that this ain’t War and Peace. Any time a movie hinges on the idea of huge looming spaceships sucking up generous portions of the population, vacuum-cleaner style, into their airborne, steely maws, you have to figure: character development is taking a back seat, here. The question is, can the movie still be a brainlessly fun time like, say, Cloverfield? Or at least a special effects extravaganza, a la Avatar? Or will it just be a disheveled mess, incoherent and noisy, like (insert movie title you hate here)?


You can forgive a lot in a movie like Skyline. The characters might be weak, the story ludicrous, the plot hackneyed, the logical holes big enough to fly a spaceship through. Hey—not every aliens-come-to-Earth movie can be The Thing From Another World (the 1951 original, I mean). Or even District 9. However crummy a movie might be, there are few sins that can’t be overlooked as long as the specials effects manage to be appropriately epic, the pace doesn’t drag too much, and there are a few “oh wow” moments scattered throughout.


These, then, are my admittedly modest criteria for assessing this movie.


The plot can be easily summarized. Alien spaceships appear over Los Angeles one day and start hoovering up hordes of people from the ground, presumably for no good purpose. A small group of buddies who have gotten together for a birthday party in a highrise witness these events from the penthouse suite, and spend the bulk of the movie trying to get out of the building. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that not all of them manage to do so.


The camera work lends a claustrophobic feel to the proceedings, as the audience knows only a little more about what’s happening than the characters do—courtesy of the occasional high-angle, panoramic shot—and the characters know almost nothing. For the most part, the audience shares the limitations of the humans onscreen. This is effective.


So is the visual spectacle, which is impressive by any measure. The spaceships are appropriately unearthly, the aliens creepily tentacular or thunderously juggernautlike, the US military response fast-paced and visceral. There is plenty of action, including a few jump-in-your-seat moments, but the action avoids the quick-cutting that mars too many movies these days. Lots of stuff explodes, but you generally understand why.


Considerably less effective are the characters, who really are little more than ciphers. As mentioned above, nobody expects these people to be Tolstoyan in their complexity, but on the other hand it would be pleasant if some of them had more personality than, say, a character in a video game. They do not. They go through their paces, running around and crying out—sometimes in slow motion!—and we as the audience watch. But do we as the audience care? No, we don’t. Whoops—there goes another one. Pass the popcorn.


The pace is steady once the aliens show up, which happens soon enough. At a brisk ninety-odd minutes, there’s not a lot of slack time in this film. This leaves the “oh wow” moments, which do take place, but which unfortunately collapse in the service of a jaw-droppingly stupid final few minutes.


The DVD contains a few extras that might be of interest to the fans, presuming that this movie has fans, which is not a foregone conclusion. The deleted and extended scenes manage to consume whole minutes of your life without adding anything of value to the movie, while two commentaries, one by directors Greg and Colin Strause and the other by co-screenwriters Liam O’Donnell and Joshua Cordes, tell you how great everybody’s performances were. There’s plenty of chatter about the effects, too, along with insightful comments like: “It was crazy how little time we had to pull this thing off.”


Really, though, are you watching this DVD because you want to hear the director say, “We tried to make everyone’s motivations, you know, grounded from their own experience”? No, you are not. You are watching this because you want to see Los Angelenos get sucked airborne into the pitiless bellies of machines from the other side of the universe. You want to see your fellow humans running in terror—sometimes in slow motion!—from monsters they neither comprehend nor control. You wish to see them struggle to overcome impossible odds, and you want to watch many of them fail to do so.


Well then, you’re in luck, because that is exactly what you get here.

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Extras rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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