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The title of and ad campaign for DARK SKIES, not to mention
an opening quotation from science-fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke, almost feel
like miscalculations. The movie develops a decently teasing sense of mystery in
its first half that can only be diluted by foreknowledge of what’s going on.
DARK SKIES is what feels like the 27th movie “from the
producer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS,” and like the latter film and
producer Jason Blum’s SINISTER, it roots its terror in an average suburban
family threatened by mysterious, malevolent forces. Not that Lacy and Daniel
Barrett (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) don’t already have problems of their
own: Daniel is unemployed and struggling to find work in the face of mounting
bills, and their older son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is spending too much time with a
bad-influence older friend. Meanwhile, younger son Sam (Kadan Rockett—what a
perfect name for a sci-fi kid) has been having disturbing dreams about a
presence called “The Sandman,” who appears to have been spawned in his mind
from the scary stories Jesse reads him, and in reality starts engaging in
POLTERGEIST-style stacking tricks in the kitchen late at night.
Writer/director Scott Stewart, whose previous features were
the CGI-heavy LEGION and PRIEST, here adopts a more measured, restrained
approach, eliciting a quietly threatening mood with deep rumbles of Joseph
Bishara’s score and pulling off a few successful jump moments (especially if
you haven’t seen the trailer). The escalating oddness in the Barrett home
counterbalances neatly with the mundane domestic pressures they’re facing, and
Russell and Hamilton are a likable and empathetic pair of leads as they become
increasingly concerned over Sam’s—and eventually their own—strange behavior.
While Lacy takes to Google to figure out what’s going on, Daniel installs
surveillance cameras throughout the house, allowing for a bit of manipulated
video ACTIVITY reminiscent of Blum’s hit franchise as well.
From the evidence cited above, however, we’re ahead of the
Barretts, and know that the presences infiltrating their home are not of this
Earth. With that awareness, it’s not too hard to guess what the invaders want,
or where the story will go as it proceeds into its third act: a visit with a
reclusive expert (J.K. Simmons, effectively eschewing a conspiracy-ranting
approach and adopting a more resigned tone in his delivery), and a final stand
in which windows are boarded and shotguns wielded against an enemy that has clearly
proven to have supernatural properties. The climax also requires one of the
characters to make a very foolish move, and a portion of it takes the film into
odd territory that’s more surreal than sci-fi.
If DARK SKIES ultimately doesn’t explore much fresh
territory for its subgenre, it’s also better than its unscreened-in-advance
status might suggest. The production is slick while remaining grounded in the
reality required to center the story, and Stewart and his cast get us to care
about the characters even as we feel like we’ve seen the forces threatening
them before. Never mind what’s happening in the skies; it’s the darkness that
descends within the Barretts’ household that proves most resonant here.
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