“Dark Skies” wasn’t screened for critics, and distributor Dimension Films supposedly wanted to ban theaters from showing midnight screenings of the film, too. Why such lockdown? Perhaps it’s because they know what could have been with “Dark Skies.” With a solid premise and a good sense of temporality—the film is set during Fourth of July week, which is the most American, normal, suburban time of all—”Dark Skies” could have made a real impact on the horror film genre. Instead, we get a series of clichés, things that seem very much like “Paranormal Activity” ideas, but with extraterrestrials instead of ghosts or witches. (And perhaps that’s because the film is produced by Jason Blum, who also had a hand in the “Paranormal Activity” series.) That kind of switcheroo feels lazy and repetitive, and also like the “Paranormal Activity” films, the characters in “Dark Skies” feel distant and disconnected. We want them to be paralyzed with fear and panic, but they play things too close to the chest. The emotions don’t feel real nearly often enough.
The film focuses on the Barretts, a middle-class family with mom Lacy (Keri Russell), dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton), and sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo, of “Rise of the Guardians” and “Thor”) and Sam (Kadan Rockett). They seem like a nice group of people living in a nice home with nice relationships, but the economy is crumbling around them, and everyone is actually harboring something. Daniel, an unemployed architect, is lying to Lacy about his job hunt; he says he’s going to interviews and working on applications, but not so much. Lacy, a real estate agent, can’t seem to close deals anymore, and she’s fibbing to Daniel about the nightmares Sam keeps having about the “Sandman,” who steals his eyes. And Daniel, almost a teenager, isn’t sharing his growing sense of sexuality—or the fact that he’s started experimenting with drugs—with anyone.
But when weird things start happening, how much can the family keep up this charade of normalcy? Food starts disappearing. Their family photos vanish. Items in cupboards become arranged into bizarre geometric stacks, seemingly levitating. Bruises, cuts, and what seem like brands begin appearing on their bodies. Birds start flying into their home, crashing and leaving blood everywhere. A shadowy figure lurks around at night. It’s like a variety of weird leftovers from numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or “The X-Files” decided to converge on their lives at once.
The film then takes your typical “Paranormal Activity” turn, though, and all that promise is lost. As the Barretts set up video cameras and employ alien expert Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons, of “Contraband,” “Young Adult,” “True Grit,” “Megamind,” “Jennifer’s Body,” “Post Grad,” and “Aliens in the Attic”), there’s a sense that we’ve seen this all before. And, of course, we have. That’s not to say the film needed more scares or big gotcha! moments, but it just feels too under-thought, too undeveloped. The shock we’re expecting never really comes.
The performances aren’t terrible, though. Goyo and Rockett are both effective and Russell is convincing as a mother overwhelmed with terror; Hamilton is the weak link. He never overcomes his character’s stubborn, skeptical personality, and adds nothing to make the character his own.
Overall, it’s tough to be empathetic with anyone in “Dark Skies.” We watch them become terrorized, we watch them flail to figure out what’s happening, and we wait for the final twist, but the film does so very little to effectively satisfy or enthrall. “Dark Skies” is yet another formula, and its lack of surprise—and frustratingly open ending, leaving the option open for sequels—is its greatest flaw.
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