“The Blair Witch Project” is one of the most successful DIY filmmaking stories in history, and while it didn’t invent the concept of found-footage horror, it created a formula that many imitators followed. The “Blair Witch” template yielded 20-plus years of shaky-cam dread, with franchises that ran the gimmick into the ground. The film’s co-directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, kept low profiles as they produced unassuming and often sturdy lo-fi genre movies that never quite crossed over in the same way. Myrick’s latest effort, the understated UFO thriller “Skyman,” follows suit — but more than anything preceding it, this meandering, observant little movie feels like a direct response to the grassroots storytelling approach that “Blair Witch” popularized at the start of the century.
This time, however, the outcome is less scary than sad. Once again, jittery camerawork and faux documentary footage depict the quixotic efforts to record otherworldly events in the middle of nowhere (in this case, the California desert). In its final moments, the drama builds to the usual blurry chaos and jump scares, as if the material caved to those expectations on default. Before then, however, Myrick develops intrigue around the nature of the quest, using the format to explore the alienated life of a man trapped by a desire to escape the fact-based reality surrounding him. It’s less invested in “The X-Files” ethos of “I want to believe” than the toll that can take on an innocent mind.
Carl Merryweather (Michael Selle, in his feature debut) suggests what might have happened to the Richard Dreyfus character in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” if he never found his ticket to the stars. As old news reports recall, Carl was 10 years old in 1987, when a set of triangular lights appeared above Apple Valley and the kid reported telepathic engagement with a mysterious humanoid. Today, Carl’s 40-year-old birthday looms and he remains stuck to that past encounter. Haunted by a similar encounter endured by his late Air Force father, Carl’s plight suggests the travails of intergenerational trauma, real or imagined.
A somber, soft-spoken man with sunken eyes, Carl roams through his childhood home haunted by an encounter that hampered his development. While his lively divorced sister Gina (Nicolette Sweeney) offers some support as the pair care for their ailing mother in a nursing home, Carl’s childhood trauma is his own cross to bear. He embodies the simmering frustrations of a social pariah so dissatisfied with the limited world at his disposal that he invented a new one. Selle exudes such a convincing blend of melancholy and solipsism that “Skyman” often functions as a response to fake-news obsessives keen on believing internet conspiracies simply because the alternative isn’t exciting enough to get through the day.
Before its messy climax, “Skyman” works well as a tragicomic look at the nature of extraterrestrial obsessives. After a random expert opens the movie by explaining that such true believers are “looking for something science can’t prove,” Myrick digs into the psychological factors driving that desire with enthralling results.
The strongest passage finds Carl heading to an actual UFO convention, where he’s both mocked and ignored in equal measures, and Myrick presents a keen look at the way such kitschy events can prey on gullible minds more than offering any measure of community. Finally, Carl convinces Gina and old high school pal Marcus (a charismatic Faleolo Alailama) to join him for a birthday hangout in the desert at the grimy camper where they used to waste their away their youth. The trio’s playful hangout sessions generate real warmth, and suggests a world in which Carl can stop obsessing over unidentified beings and find new purpose with the ones he knows.
Alas. Once “Skyman” gives itself to Carl’s fantasies, it devolves into a hodgepodge of poorly explained circumstances and jagged storytelling, turning up the score (co-written by Billy Corgan, of all people) for an unearned version of the movie that seems to have been playing out in its protagonist’s head. It’s a bummer that “Skyman” doesn’t trust a movie devoid of supernatural or sci-fi circumstances to carry it over the finish line: Its strengths lie in that under-explored turf. More than two decades after “Blair Witch,” the potential to surprise viewers with amateur footage of barely visible and only half-explained events no longer appeals on its own terms. Much of “Skyman” turns on the inanity of obsessing over insatiable beliefs that lead to self-defeating ends. By the end, it’s fallen into the same trap.
“Skyman” opens at drive-in theaters June 30 and is available on demand July 7.