Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dark Skies (2013)

In the sleepy slump period between the end of Oscar Season and the beginning of Summer Blockbuster Season, you can always count on at least one demon possession thriller hitting the multiplexes. March already has one such release--the Eli Roth-produced Last Exorcism Part II--but writer-director Scott Stewart's new alien abduction flick Dark Skies could just as easily fall into this same category. The sinister alien invaders who torment the film's family might as well just be demons from hell, given their penchant for ominous tomfoolery and nightly visitations. The result is a fairly shameless cross between Poltergeist and Signs (PolterSigns?) with a healthy dash of the Paranormal Activity franchise thrown in for good measure. The Barrett family--realtor mom Lacy (Keri Russell), out-of-work architect dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton), teenaged Jesse (Dakota Goyo), and youngest son Sam (Kadan Rockett)--are an average family that finds itself at the mercy of all sorts of creepy goings-on, both in the daytime and after dark. Sam starts spacing out weirdly, shrieking in a high-pitched squeal, publicly wetting himself, and exhibiting weird bruises on his body. Lacy witnesses a mass avian suicide of Birdemic proportions and starts smacking her head into a window. Daniel sleepwalks out into the yard in the middle of the night, and Lacy finds him making an "O" face while staring off into nothing. And Jesse experiences strange electrical disturbances, like streetlights inexplicably going out one by one as he bikes home. Objects are piled up mysteriously in the kitchen Poltergeist-style, and all the family photos in the living room go missing. While Daniel sets up an expensive new home-security system (that keeps being mysteriously triggered by nobody, seemingly) and a series of surveillance cameras that go all staticky whenever anything spooky happens, Lacy becomes obsessed with online accounts of alien visitations. She and Daniel meet with a UFO conspiracy nut (J.K. Simmons) who tells them that their youngest son may be targeted for abduction. The Barretts batten down the hatches for a final showdown, not realizing that the alien invaders may in fact have a different target in mind. Dark Skies does its best to tap into certain societal anxieties that would provide an interesting spine to a better story; the family's money woes and Daniel's job search take up a lot of screen time, as does a subplot about the bad influence of an older boy Jesse hangs out with, not to mention the fact that the suspicious bruises on Sam's torso make the Barrett parents into neighbourhood pariahs. However, all these subplots really do is try and divert attention away from the fact that Dark Skies doesn't have an original idea in its head. Why else would the filmmakers spend so much screen time on Daniel's largely unsuccessful job hunt, only to have him find employment late in the second act and never bring it up again? Why devote so many scenes to Jesse and his oafish pal getting into trouble when they ultimately have no real bearing on the larger plot? Former VFX artist Scott Stewart sets the scene nicely--Dark Skies is a well-shot, confidently directed film--but most of the running time is devoted to trying to make us care about the characters, all of which is worthless without a satisfactory predicament to put them in. The film's Big Twist is incredibly obvious, and a brief postscript shows the remaining family members putting the pieces together three months too late to do anything about it. Dark Skies wants you to look to the skies in fear, but it'll most likely have you looking at your watch.

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