FEBRUARY 23, 2013
If you have yet to see any of the films from Blumhouse (that would be the Paranormal Activities, Sinister, and Insidious), then Dark Skies will work like gangbusters on you if you're in the mood for an otherworldly take on a typical haunted house flick. For those who HAVE been keeping up with the nearly omnipresent producer, then you might experience more than just a little deja vu, and not counting the lesser PA sequels, all of those other films delivered something a little more inspired than what is offered here.
That's not to say it's BAD - I enjoyed my time watching it and found a lot to like, but I was constantly being bombarded with memories of the other films. The family has financial problems, just like the one in Sinister. The alarm keeps going off, like the one in Insidious (and the family unit is the same - two young boys, one of whom is seemingly of more interest to the "presence" than the other), and the problems inspire the dad to install surveillance cameras not unlike you know what. It's as if Blum instructed writer/director Scott Stewart to pick his favorite bits from their library and wrap them around a movie that's about aliens instead of ghosts. It works, but come on - give us some new plot points!
Indeed, it practically buries its best idea (besides aliens - I'm so sick of ghosts, you guys) - the character played by J.K. Simmons. At first he seems like the usual conspiracy nut/weirdo who sounds ridiculous but turns out to be right, but they wait so long to finally bring him into the movie (I think it's at the hour mark) that there's no way we can doubt him - at this point we're not being led down the wrong path as we were early on (freak occurrences chalked up to the kids playing pranks and fireworks causing birds to get confused and break their migratory patterns). No, by now we're getting answers, so everything he says is never in doubt, and thus it's a shame they couldn't have used him for something a little more exciting than just providing some exposition before exiting the movie again (he appears briefly again in the closing sequence). Not only is Simmons a terrific actor who doesn't make a lot of appearances in genre films (the last was Jennifer's Body, I believe), but I particularly liked his weariness about all the alien stuff - he knows he can't do much about it, so all he CAN do is keep an eye on things and try to let their presence cause minimum disruption to his life (I love that he lives in an apartment building that doesn't allow dogs because they are attuned to the alien presence and thus never stop barking - he owns several cats instead).
It's also got some other interesting ideas in this final half hour, but of course discussing them would be spoiler-y - and the trailer has done enough damage in that department. Most of what it shows and discusses are late game developments; the movie itself doesn't start talking about aliens for quite a while, for example. So let's just talk about how Stewart really nailed making these folks likable and identifiable, to the extent where I legit had a reaction to one of their few high notes during the course of the film, when the husband (Josh Hamilton) gets a job just in the nick of time (he had been laid off some time ago - now the mortgage bill is overdue, he's had to turn off the security system to save some money, etc.) and they celebrate with the first show of passion in the film - it's a really uplifting moment that feels earned, something that's lacking in a lot of movies nowadays where we're always entering this story in the middle (i.e. when they've already gotten the new job - hence the new house and blah blah). Likewise, there's a sweet bit where Keri Russell, trying to sell a not-great house to a family who reminds her of her own, quietly admits to the mom that they could do better for the same price. The older son is a bit of a punk at times, but overall it's one of the more personable, believable families I've seen in a while, and it went a long way with regards to keeping my interest.
Also it takes another page from Insidious - no fake scares! The first time we see an alien is a pretty great jolt, and even what appears to have been a nightmare (booo!) turns out to be a reality (oh, cool!). No people standing behind family members in the mirror, no spooky noises chalked up to a mischievous cat, etc. There aren't a lot of scares in the film, but at least those that are there are genuine and related to the alien. It's a relief.
My only major complaint (VAGUE SPOILER) is that they don't really explain why the aliens take the whole movie to do what they do at the end, as it seems they could have done that right off the bat instead of dicking around making stacks of groceries and giving Russell a rash on her scalp. Simmons mentions something about gathering data, so I guess we can assume that they were testing the family for one reason or another, but that's a lot of maybes since it's all based on a theory in the first place - Simmons doesn't KNOW that's what they're up to. For all he knows they might just be trying to recruit teammates for a Space Jam. I heard a few groans when it ended on an ambiguous note, but I couldn't tell if those folks were mad that it didn't explain this stuff more, or that they were seemingly setting up a sequel.
Or maybe they were just mad because they were now able to check their watches and realized that they were in overtime for their babysitters, since the movie started almost 20 minutes late due to unexplained snafus. Five minutes after the posted start time, the trailers still hadn't begun, and then one of the AMC "we love movies!" or whatever screens froze. A couple minutes later, the screen went blank and the house music came on, which we endured for another 5 minutes or so before more AMC ads (including one that said "Where movies love to play!" - nice irony) kicked in, and then finally the familiar coke ad that paves the way for trailers. It was probably just some dumb mistake up in the booth, but I couldn't help but get worried that the film was about to be canceled - a couple of friends who ventured out to see it at midnight on Thursday night were treated to DCP failures in both New York and here in LA, and there were reports of screenings that were just vanished (ABDUCTED?) from their respective schedules a few hours before their start time. Likewise, it's the first major movie release all year that didn't have 10pm showings the night before at the AMC/Arclight theaters here, so considering that with the fact that it didn't have any traditional press screenings leads me to believe that Dimension was trying to hide the film for some reason (the embargo for those few press that DID see the film was also 6pm on opening day - unheard of). I don't get why - it's a perfectly "OK" movie, the sort of thing critics wouldn't care much about either way (nor would an audience listen to them), and most of my peers agree that it's not that bad at all. This pretty hilarious Indiewire piece from Matt Singer ponders whether or not the movie even really exists - indeed it does, and I'm not sure why Dimension seems to be embarrassed about it. They should be far more concerned about their unasked-for Scary Movie 5 than this harmless, mostly effective little thriller - and kudos to Mr. Stewart on his best work yet.
What say you?