PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'Dark Skies' Leans on the Right Nerve

The real thrill, here, is tied in with 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

Director: Scott Stewart
Cast: Josh Hamilton, Keri Russell, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett
Length: 97 minutes
Studio: Dimension Films
Year: 2013
Distributor: Anchor Bay
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release date: 2013-05-28

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.