‘Dark Skies’ Leans on the Right Nerve

Dark Skies counts among its producers Jason Blum, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, and Peter Gvozdas — all of whom appear on the commentary track with writer/director Scott Stewart — men who have movies like Insidious, Sinister, and Paranormal Activity to their names. While working squarely within the horror genre, these films aren’t about teens heading into secluded cabins to be picked off one-by-one in bloody kill scenes. There’s something a little bit deeper and thinkier about them.

Dark Skies fits squarely within that camp. It follows Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton), a typical small-town couple trying to make ends meet while raising their two sons, 13-year-old Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and six-year-old Sam (Kadan Rockett). Throughout the movie, two types of dramas unfold simultaneously within the family. The first is a suburban tale of a weakened marriage, with a husband and wife at odds with each other, threatened by outside forces and tested under the scrutiny of a close-knit (and judgmental) community. The second is a sci-fi/horror story about unknown visitors wreaking havoc in the homestead and menacing the children.

What unites these threads is Daniel’s growing anxiety about his ability to protect his family. He’s out of work, he doesn’t understand what’s going on around him — and he’s out of ideas for his next move. Dark Skies works best when it leans on this nerve. It’s tapping into a low-level fear, but one that’s extremely relatable, and therefore more able to get under one’s skin than a typical boogeyman.

Hamilton, for his part, does an incredible job of showing someone who wants to be in control, but whose world is fraying around him. Stewart mentions in the commentary about striving for naturalism, stepping back and letting the actors do improv for some of the scenes. His instincts were right, as Russell and Hamilton are perfectly matched. Lacy’s a believer, and Daniel’s a skeptic — yet they both behave the way any normal couple would when thrown into such unexplainable circumstances. They both seem clearheaded at times and a little insane at others, and neither is altogether villainized.

In fact, all of the suburban elements of Dark Skies work well, even when they don’t necessarily further the plot. The movie often goes on diversions with Jesse, delving into his best-friendship with a neighborhood thug (L.J. Benet) and his first romance with a girl (Annie Thurman). It might seem incongruous to insert in a coming-of-age subplot into a movie already stuffed with a broken marriage and supernatural beings, but these scenes don’t seem shoehorned in. They’re genuine and give an honest, nostalgia-free glimpse at what it’s like to be a new teenager, even if this is the last movie where you’d expect to find such sentiment.

When the movie veers away from the naturalistic and towards the horrific, though, it starts to falter. Sure, the forces at work serve their purpose for the characters, driving a wedge between Lacy and Daniel. Taken on their own, however, the threats feel overly familiar. These forces cause clichéd ailments: birds crash into windows (didn’t we just see this in Red Lights?); noses become bloodied; time is lost; and rashes, bruises, and strange marks appear. Some of it is even captured on home-security webcams, just like in Paranormal Activity. In the commentary, which is the DVD’s main feature, along with some deleted scenes and an alternate ending, Stewart even mentions envisioning the movie as a “found-footage” movie, a concept that they thankfully abandoned, fearing it’ll look dated.

Trendy “found-footage” filmmaking or not, none of these supernatural symptoms are very innovative, and, as we’ve seen them all before elsewhere, they fail to raise goosebumps. And when the true forces behind the threats are finally unveiled, the movie’s small budget is revealed along with it.

The supernatural element isn’t even handled well on a narrative level. Late into the movie, Lacy and Daniel consult an “expert,” Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons). Simmons gives a fascinating performance in the role. Most of the time, his purpose — that of someone who could be either the only one telling the truth, or a total nutcase — is carried out by someone with a manic, frantic energy. (Think The Lone Gunmen in The X-Files.) Simmons chooses to play the character as extremely weary, as if he’s exhausted from carrying around weight of all of his knowledge.

Yet as novel as he makes a kind of stock character, he’s still a walking exposition machine. He pops up in the last third of the movie just to inelegantly lay out the rules Lacy and Daniel must follow for the final act. Jesse’s teenage exploits serve less of a function for the main story, but they feel whole and earned. It’s this third-act info-dump that, while more important, feels forced.

Usually in a horror movie, the points between the frightening moments feel like setup, something you have to slog through until the tension ratchets up again. Dark Skies is one of the few movies where the biggest scares feel like they’re getting in the way of the real story.

RATING 6 / 10