Alien abduction, the supposedly true phenomena wherein everyday citizens are stolen from their beds, experimented on, and returned, is a truly frightening idea – one whose super-scary possibilities have only really been explored in a handful of movies (“Communion,” with Christopher Walken, most famously; the ingeniously structured “Fire In The Sky” most effectively). The ultimate alien abduction movie, something that could do for peaceful nighttime slumbers what “Jaws” did for a day at the beach, has yet to be produced and “Dark Skies,” a new sci-fi horror thingee that grafts the alien abduction theme onto what is essentially a loose remake of “Poltergeist,” certainly attempts such a feat. And it is pretty scary. Unfortunately, all its hard work is undone by a bewilderingly goofy ending that is roughly the cinematic equivalent of an unwanted anal probe.
Just as “Poltergeist” was rooted in the suburban landscape of Reagan’s America, so too is “Dark Skies” firmly planted in today’s post-recession economic climate. The father, Daniel Barrett (Josh Hamilton), is an unemployed architect looking for work, while his wife Lacy (Keri Russell, terrific as always) is burdened with supporting the family as a real estate agent at a time when no one is buying homes. They have two young sons – the older son Jesse (Dakota Goyo from “Real Steel“) is growing up too quickly, thanks to his friendship with a troubled older boy; and Sam (Kadan Rockett) has troubles all his own – especially when he starts relaying to his parents that he’s being visited at night by a shadowy figure he describes as “The Sandman.”
Early sequences in “Dark Skies,” when the otherworldly weirdness is more benevolent, bring to mind not only “Poltergeist” (with its geometrically stacked chairs and prankish spirits) but also other “Steven Spielberg presents”-type movies of the same period. There are some jaw-dropping sequences that border on transcendence where the camera glides overhead, watching Jesse ride his bike through the under-populated neighborhood. These moments perfectly capture that feeling of childhood – the kind of late-summer air, which hangs heavy with all the possibilities of not being forced into school, the freedom and exploration that mobility provides, and those burgeoning hormonal charges that transform light social interaction to the stuff of cosmic wonderment – and writer/director Scott Stewart, the visual effects technician who previously made the interchangeably aggressive “Priest” and “Legion,” should be commended. It’s the sensation “Super 8” was trying to achieve but couldn’t quite establish.
Slowly but surely the movie intensifies, and the nightly visitations become more horrific. The children start to have seizures and are covered in inky bruises that the neighbors mistake for parental abuse (a rich subplot that is unfortunately abandoned towards the end of the movie) and the adults each have periods of “missing time” and strange marks on their bodies. In one genuinely frightening scene, three flocks of birds crash into their home, hitting each window with a splattery thump, as if drawn by some unseen force. Another sequence has Daniel, who earlier in the movie suggests cutting the cable as a way of trimming the financial fat, setting up an elaborate series of security cameras in an effort to videotape what is going on. At first this feels like a knowing wink at the found footage genre, one that “Dark Skies” producer Jason Blum helped revolutionize with “Paranormal Activity,” and it does provide a couple of sequences of goose bumpy dread, but its thematic and narrative possibilities go almost entirely unexplored.
This is one of the more crippling aspects of “Dark Skies” – that it fails to engage with the parallel threats to the Barrett family – the alien invaders messing with the children, and the adults who can’t get their lives together enough to provide stability for their family. The parallels were clearly drawn in “Poltergeist,” with the family standing in for an America built upon the ghosts of our ancestors, produced at a time of uncommon greed and selfishness, and it added to that movie’s singular power (undone somewhat by an unnecessary string of sequels and spin-offs but still strongly evident in the original). Towards the third act of “Dark Skies,” Daniel gets a job – this should be a small triumph, and have a similar effect in the alien plotline, but it doesn’t. Nothing ever materializes like it should. These sections, apparently, have been spirited away in the night.
The Barretts eventually seek the advise of an “expert,” this time played by J.K. Simmons, in full-on crank mode (his apartment is in shambles, wallpapered with missing child announcements he chalks up to alien abductions). His appearance in the movie offers a sliver of possibility, as he suggests that there are ways that the family can fight back against the final onslaught of extraterrestrial invaders. For anyone who thought the climax of “Poletergeist” was a little pussy-footed, then this exchange offers hope for a full on bloodbath; something like “Attack the Block” as filtered through “Assault on Precinct 13.” (It also amplifies the psychological unease of the entire movie.) While a shot of Daniel going to the gun shop is a little spotty given recent events, these sequences tend to resonate – the family, which has suffered so much strain both from within and without, bands together to defeat a common enemy. If all it took was alien abductions to get mom and dad to start talking, so be it. This is where “Dark Skies” hits its stride and you can really get behind it; it was spooky and fun before (if a little thin) but it could be truly exceptional in this home stretch.
Unfortunately, everything falls apart in the end. The siege begins, of course, with cool flourishes like nails spinning backwards from hinges, and then a series of scenes happen for reasons that don’t make a whole lot of sense, which totally derails any tension or anxiety or fun. Where these scenes even came from is honestly something worth puzzling over. They seem to have been airlifted in from a different movie altogether and the effect is to not only obliterate the tension that the sequence had been building towards, but to undo all of the stuff that you might have liked in the previous ninety minutes of the movie. (Also: you never really get a good look at the monsters, which is always a bummer.) Alien abductions are a truly terrifying idea, and building an alien abduction movie on the template of “Poltergeist” is a great idea. But “Poltergeist” had one thing “Dark Skies” is sorely in need of: follow-through. [C]