Despite some welcome unconventional touches, Dark Skies still arranges plenty of dopey horror movie contrivances.
Scott Stewart's first two films are what you might have expected from a special effects whiz making the transition to studio genre fare. Legion (2009) and Priest (2011) both deliver maximum visual business on a medium budget. And neither makes all of that computer-animation compelling, once the novelty of rogue angels or future-western vampires wears off.
His third film, Dark Skies, doesn't even appear to be have such novelty: a suburban family is haunted by mysterious forces in their home. These forces seem to be extraterrestrial rather than the usual supernatural, but the plot outlines are too familiar. The husband and wife don't believe their eyes. A little kid draws pictures of a creepy figure with a benign nickname (in this case, the Sandman). We've seen it before, often in other movies produced by Jason Blum, whose filmography includes Insidious, Sinister, and the Paranormal Activity series.
Yet, following the noise of Legion and Priest, much of Dark Skies goes quiet, patient, and surprisingly believable in its treatment of the human characters and their environment. The Barretts suffer from middle-class anxiety before they start hearing things in the dead of night; Lacy (Keri Russell) is a real state agent struggling to sell fixer-uppers to buyers who could probably do better, while out-of-work designer Daniel (Josh Hamilton) goes to job interviews with a half-grown beard.
Their early dialogue reveals this precarious financial situation, and it has a natural ring to it, benefiting as well from Russell and Hamilton's earnest performances. (Hamilton starred in Noah Baumbach's first movie, Kicking and Screaming, and he's not an obvious choice for a horror movie lead, which makes his low-achieving crank of a husband oddly endearing, his familiarity coming more from real life echoes than stock movie roles.) Of course, the couple worries about their children, 13-year-old Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and younger Sam (Kadan Rockett). While Rockett is saddled with much of the movie's most rote material and, like a lot of child performers, turns wooden when he's supposed to be haunted, Goyo is very good as a confused adolescent, suspicious of his parents but protective of his younger brother.
The film effectively establishes the different worlds inhabited by the kids and the adults. Scenes outside of his parents' view, where he hangs out with an older boy (L.J. Benet) and moons over an neighborhood girl (Annie Thurman), take on a melancholy air, and shots of Jesse riding his bike down his street have a dusky mood more subtle than a typical horror movie, as if Stewart used the alien angle to crib, ever so slightly, from movies like E.T. (or at least homages to E.T., like Super 8).
The slightly heightened realism informs the movie's evolving sense of dread. Menacing, unseen alien forces are added to the Barrett family's mounting problems like another bill. If other haunting movies focus on a particular family member in danger of possession or worse, much of Dark Skies maintains interest in all the family members, equally bedeviled and equally unable to help each other. Even at odds, they're in this together, and when Lacy and Daniel visit alien expert Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), he confirms the lack of a chosen one. "There's nothing special about you," he says. They're the subjects of experiments, nothing more.
Despite these unconventional touches, the movie still arranges plenty of dopey horror movie contrivances. Just after he's explained that the haunting is more or less arbitrary, Pollard adds that the aliens do have a method of selecting a family member for abduction, after all. This and other details don't make much sense: how likely is it, for example, that neighbors and doctors would notice strange markings on both of the Barrett sons before either parent would?
In the end, the family's mutual desperation is touching -- one bittersweet scene has them all seated around the dinner table for an isolated Fourth of July dinner -- but Dark Skies doesn't live up to the promise of its best moments. That's never truer than at the movie's climax, which goes in such an interestingly trippy direction that it raises questions about why the movie didn't follow that muse further, and sooner. Instead, even the movie's better ideas are undermined by an overbearing score and well-worn imagery. Like so many hauntings, it feels like a losing battle, ceded too early.