As a sub-genre of science fiction and horror, alien abduction films will always be here to fill a niche. Whether they are under a fictional guise (Signs) or marketed as a true story (Communion), the ever pervading fear of a genuine unknown entity entering a domestic setting seems to be a notion as ancient as the stories themselves. Ranging from the primeval folklore tales of succubus and incubus to the modern phenomenon of ‘the Grays’ coming into our collective consciousness in the latter part of the twentieth century, there is no shortage of descriptive physical characteristics and theories as to who they are or what motives compel them to engage with the human species. In Dark Skies, writer/director Scott Stewart takes an average American family and subjects them to his own dark interpretation of a modern alien encounter.
When the movie first came to my attention, I thought it was perhaps a film version of the eighteen-episode science fiction series that debuted in the late nineties, riding on the coat-tails of a certain successful show called The X-Files. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case – and a quick perusal of the director’s previous forays into cinema revealed someone who (although achieving questionable results in the past with Legion), was looking to be setting up shop in the horror genre, but had yet to hit his stride or find quite the right project to call home. However, despite a few problems - mainly due to the unoriginality of the story – it seems Dark Skies as a working whole will win some critics over and give the director just the kind of clout he needs to branch out in future endeavors.
The Barnett family are white, middle-class suburbanites. Their existence is mundane if relatively happy. Lacy (Keri Russell) works as real estate agent and although an unemployed architect her husband (Daniel) is optimistic about his future. Their two sons, Jessie and Sammy, communicate at night through a set of walkie-talkies in separate bedrooms. Soon, the family experiences some common tropes of poltergeist activity: fridges are raided, furniture is rearranged, and in one instance the entire mosaic of their photo collection is filched with the frames entirely intact. The authorities are sought, but with no hard evidence, Daniel takes matters into his own hands by putting the house under surveillance with security cameras. When the terrors escalate into missing time, implants, and the manifestations of otherworldly creatures on camera, it soon becomes apparent the events are merely a precursor to a countdown or ‘final moment’ of unknown agenda.
It all sounds a tad formulaic, doesn’t it? And (at least on paper), I’d agree. However, there is a simple ambiance in Dark Skies that works. The soundtrack is used sparingly and sometimes not at all; silence itself becomes a sound. When each member of the family experiences dangerous fugue states, all actors (including the children) give credible performances that give the whole outing a genuine feeling of unease.
Lastly, it should be noted there are more than a few similarities between this movie and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Whereas one dealt with the alien abduction phenomenon in a rural setting, this one transports us to an urban environment - and ultimately we have the same mixed results. If anything, Scott Stewart proves he has learned one important lesson from the successful director who tackled the subject matter before him: that in any suspense film, no matter the size of your budget, the biggest scares always come from what is suggested ... and not from what is shown.