Directed by Scott Stewart
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
Scott Stewart thinks big. Both of his previous features were high concept, effects-driven flicks with fairly large scopes. His first film, Legion, concerned the archangel Michael attempting to protect a special child in the face of an oncoming apocalypse (and having to fight demons and fellow angels to do so). His next film, the manga adaptation Priest, was a post-apocalyptic yarn featuring a faith-driven warrior battling legions of mutated vampires. Sadly, neither film quite worked, mostly due to the thinly written characters and rather simple plots lost within the large worlds the ambitious filmmaker created.
Maybe it’s no surprise then that Dark Skies, Stewart’s new alien-centric thriller, is his most successful turn as a storyteller yet. With its smaller scope and sharp focus centered on the characters rather than the genre trappings, Dark Skies is an engaging tale full of people we come to care about and the numerous frights that occur when those same folks are put into peril. And while many of Dark Skies spacey concepts are quite tried and true (to the point of being rather clichéd), it’s still a worthwhile watch for those who like a bit of sci-fi mixed in with their horror.
Opening with shots of an idyllic suburban neighborhood, Dark Skies quickly introduces us to the Barrett family: father Daniel (Hamilton), mother Lacy (Russell), teenage son Jesse (Goyo), and youngest child Sam (Rockett). Though they outwardly appear to be as wholesome as The Cleavers to anyone who might glimpse them in passing, the Barretts are a family in turmoil. Daniel and Lacy argue constantly over Daniel’s lack of employment and their dwindling cash flow, even as the children can’t help but hear their spirited rows each night. Meanwhile, Jesse has taken up with the wrong crowd, hanging out with an older boy who has already introduced the young lad to pot and pornography.
But perhaps little Sam has it the worst. Each night he is visited by something he calls “the Sandman”, an entity who delights in after-hours pranks which begin harmlessly enough (a disturbed refrigerator, an impressive rearranging of household objects, stolen photographs). Eventually, though, the nightly visits become far more sinister, with the insidious Sandman wreaking all sorts of paranormal activity upon the Barretts. Eventually the family comes to believe that they may be the target of forces somewhat…extraterrestrial in nature, as they seek out advice from a self-proclaimed expert on dodgy ETs (Simmons, in a brief but effective role). But even as they become ever more aware of their situation, the family is led inexorably toward the film’s inescapable and heartbreaking conclusion.
Director Stewart does well with his material here (he scripted also), crafting a spooky and surprisingly scary flick even while keeping his focus on the characters populating the tale as they struggle with events they couldn’t hope to understand. And as the family, all four leading actors do a fine job of carrying the film. Russell is solid as the caring but increasingly exasperated Lacy, while Hamilton plays Daniel with a mix of hope and weariness. Both Goyo and Rockett are very good child actors, giving believable performances throughout, even as the hysteria mounts for each. Credit must also go to Director of Photography David Boyd, whose inky, shadow-laden work cloaks the entire film in dread, while composer Joseph Bishara’s music perfectly underscores the family’s plight and the horror that envelops them.
However, for all the movie does well, it’s impossible not to compare this film to others that have preceded it. One cannot help but be reminded of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, “The X-Files”, or any number of other alien-themed movies or television shows which have come before while viewing Dark Skies. As a result, most of the film’s plot points and set pieces feel borrowed, creating a sense of déjà vu throughout. Still, credit where credit is due; Stewart has created a solid little film here. Here’s hoping this detour into smaller scale filmmaking and character-driven storytelling serves him well if/when he returns to bigger budgeted genre pics.
Anchor Bay Entertainment’s Blu-ray provides an impressive presentation of the film, with a gorgeous and sharp image and a strong DTS-HD 5.1 audio track that’ll have you looking over your shoulder for any grey little bastards that might be flitting around your living room. The bonus features section is a little light on extras, unfortunately. There is a feature commentary with Stewart, producers Jason Blum and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, and editor Peter Gvozdas. In addition, there is a ten-minute set of alternate and deleted scenes. These are mostly throwaways, as one can understand why the footage was cut or altered. However, an alternate ending does show how the film might’ve ended on a far more downbeat note. Overall, a decent package for a decent film.
If you’re the type of viewer who digs sci-fi/horror hybrids, especially those more concerned with the humans than the tech, then Dark Skies is likely right up your alley. All others, go ahead and be sure to give this little chiller a shot, if only by giving it a rental. You might be surprised at how much you enjoy it – this writer certainly was.
3 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5