Dark Skies

Year: 2013
Production Co: Alliance Films
Director: Scott Stewart
Producer: Jason Blum
Writer: Scott Stewart
Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, JK Simmons

The first thing I felt about this movie was how weird it was for anyone to make a movie like it at this particular moment in history. Stories about aliens – particularly the iconic Greys archetype – were once front and centre in pop culture, but that was back when The X Files and all the documentaries about Area 51 were so big.

To be making a thriller about it these days seems like doing a Cold War-inspired giant irradiated monster movie in the 1970s or a coke fuelled, pin-striped Reagan era fable in the 2000s, stories 20 years out of fashion from their native entertainment epochs.

Maybe someone thought younger viewers would come to the topic with fresh eyes, but there have just been so many versions of this story this one needed to offer something novel to stand out – and it didn't. Even Slumber Party Alien Abduction, the last story in horror anthology V/H/S 2 took the same motifs and designs and made something interesting out of them with the found footage approach.

The Barretts are a normal family, mother Lacy (Keri Russell) holding things together while Dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is off work and their two sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sammy (Kadan Rockett) grow up quietly and healthily in their airy suburban house.

The entire first two acts comprise a series of ever-escalating and strange occurrences and their respective fallouts. Weird markings appear on Sam's skin, making the neighbours whisper about child abuse. Flocks of birds descend on the house, flying suicidally into the windows until hundreds of them lie dead everywhere. Various members of the family leave the house in the middle of the night in apparent trances with no memory of where they are or where they're going, suffering bouts of catatonia and lost time.

At the end of her rope, Lacy finds her way to a UFO and alien researcher in the shape of JK Simmons playing a complete Mr Exposition, putting him in a ratty apartment and a fedora to try and give such an obvious story device some personality.

Instead, he simply lays out the entire plot and what will happen from them on in a suspiciously lackadaisical fashion (was Simmons just picking up the cheque or did writer/director Scott Stewart actually want this kind of performance?) A malevolent force from beyond Earth has selected a member of the family – apparently Sam – for abduction, and all the weird goings on are the effects of him being primed while the Greys visit and prepare to snatch him.

When the truth is revealed it feels a bit like a lot of sturm and drang about nothing. In the old days alien abduction was a simple as them flying their UFO above your car on a quiet back road at night and just beaming you up – it's such a popular cultural motif even Pixar parodied it in its short Lifted. Going to all this trouble and setting up such a grand mystery that could be anything from a haunting to a nefarious government surveillance program seems overkill.

But the design of the suburban lifestyle upended by terror is crisp and effective and the performances all sell it, Russell in particular never dipping into a performance that's as B grade as the premise.

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