[22 January 2007]
You’ve seen this movie before in many different guises. It follows the formula once held sacred by all aspiring filmmakers as the key to pulling off that zero budget “backyard” classic: Take five characters in search of an argument and place them in a single location where their interpersonal tensions rise as they must survive a night of unrelenting attacks from an army of the dead, street gang members, demon possessed friends, and/or the fog. Sometimes it’s malevolent aliens who attack, although not as often since a convincing alien effect usually takes both money and skill, two elements not always present on such productions. Night Skies actually picks the alien route but survives its night of horror by keeping them discreetly off screen for the most part.
There is a massive lack of originality here beginning with the title. Film nerds will remember that it belonged to the John Sayles draft for Steven Spielberg’s follow up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg thought the script was too frightening and eventually spun it off into the friendlier E.T.. Oddly, Sayles’ basic set up of a family trapped in their farmhouse as vicious aliens feast on their livestock and terrorize them was also lifted by M. Night Shyamalan for his more new-agey Signs.
So, take that title, a similar gang of sinister aliens, and toss in the RV setting from The Hills Have Eyes, and you’ve got a picture. It should’ve been the recipe for real drek, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. This version of Night Skies was not bad at all. In fact, I might even say it was pretty good.
Jason Connery is the star but you won’t meet him for awhile. The story first sets itself up as “based on some kind of possibly true but probably batshit crazy testimony by some lunatic” and even includes a few words from a press conference with Senator John McCain. He’s asked about the recent unexplained sightings of mysterious lights in the Arizona sky and seems as intent on finding the truth as he is with running for the Oval office.
From this somewhat clunky “In Search Of”-like opening, we begin our narrative proper with a pair of young couples traveling on a dark, night road in their fixed up RV. Couple number one, Matt (George Stults) and Lilly (A.J. Cook) are at a crossroads in their lives, with Lilly wanting marriage sooner than the somewhat dim witted Matt. If only he knew that she was pregnant…They are joined by their friends, Joe and June, who seem quite excited with their sex lives and love sharing their exploits with Matt and Lilly. Finally, there is Matt’s sister, Molly (Ashley Peldon) whom he describes as “not as slutty as she looks”.
While driving along they begin to notice the mysterious “phoenix lights” in the sky, racing in a distinct pattern formation. It’s at this moment that Joe opens a cabinet and we see a set of very sharp cutlery fall out which turns out to be a little foreshadowing for those interested in the pic’s literary values.
Swerving off the road to avoid smashing into an idle truck, Matt brings the RV to a violent halt. It’s, of course, busted down, and so is the other vehicle. The driver of the truck is an odd man named Richard (Jason Connery) who claims his engine just died on him for no apparent reason. The stakes are raised when it’s discovered that, somehow, during the accident, Joe ended up with a giant piece of cutlery in his right shoulder. He’s screaming and bleeding pretty bad and Richard claims to have medical knowledge from his time in the military. So, he tries to stop the bleeding with super glue (I’ll actually have to remember that one should I ever get a piece of cutlery stuck in my back, it’s a good idea).
Turns out Richard is a Vet but not of the Vietnam variety. He’s a veteran of Desert Storm and spent a few weeks being tortured by the Iraqis. He’s been fighting the bottle and himself ever since. Molly asks him who won and he replies, “I did.” Which I guess means he lost, too. The film seems to be setting up some kind of ambiguity here in regards to Richard’s mental health that isn’t really carried out by the rest of the movie. Of course, it could be that the entire movie is merely the delusion of a man dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome. A small blurb at the end of the film leads us to believe this may be true. Which is another way of saying that Pam wakes up and sees that Bobby Ewing is really in the shower. Aren’t filmmakers taught by their parents that cheating is wrong?
These characters don’t have much time to bond since they are soon face-to-face fighting a horde of vaguely glimpsed aliens, all designed to look like the classic abduction drawings we’ve all seen. Somehow the film ends up with Richard in an alien lab of some kind, stripped naked and wrapped in some kind of latex spaghetti. It’s here that the effects budget shows a real strain. The space lab looks like some kind of remodeled basement while the evil aliens resemble something like the stuffed E.T. dolls from the ‘80s.
Despite the semi-serious tone of the opening and closing declarations of factual inspiration, Night Skies is best viewed as an old fashioned B-monster movie. It’s a fairly well crafted piece of entertainment that builds some tension without completely ignoring character. The cast is fine for this kind of material, in fact, they’re much better than expected. Jason Connery (yes, he is),in particular, is really a decent actor. He gives the character of Richard more ambiguity than the script allows and it really helps the film‘s sense of paranoia.
Some UFO enthusiasts may be disappointed with the film’s lack of interest in probing the whole “Phoenix lights” mystery, but in truth, the film derives it’s very power from keeping everything a mystery even at the end. Besides, any dedicated UFOlogist wouldn’t really want to know the truth after all, right? Not when the mystery is so much more tantalizing than some mundane explanation of weather balloons or heat lightning.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/night-skies-2006/