Dark Skies is an alien-abduction film that uses horror movie tropes to create its chills, which raises one major question: how well did it work?
For the past few years, horror films have been dominated by the dynamic of the haunted house and the strained family that resides within. Immediately, the Paranormal Activity series, Insidious, and Sinister come to mind. So, what happens when an alien abduction movie treats the aliens as if they were ghosts? How well do these horror film equations work within the realm of sci-fi?
This is an approach that you might have actually seen recently, if you managed to catch the largely forgettable Skyline, released back in 2010. Skyline utilized the zombie-survivor story structure by replacing zombies with aliens, and, ultimately, it fell completely flat. Fortunately, Dark Skies is more successful in its appropriation, because the threat of these aliens is almost as terrifying as their actual presence.
Dark Skies focuses upon the financially strained Barrett family, whose suburban life slowly unravels alongside the strange occurrences which begin to plague them. Already trying to maintain the facade of stability, their image of the perfect family is forced into tension when their youngest child, Sam, begins to withdraw and behave erratically. When things begin to go bump in the night, Sam blames the mysterious “Sandman” for the upheaval.
It’s not until the rest of the family begins to experience the same sort of strange phenomena, such as “losing time” (a familiar topic to alien/UFO buffs), twitching as if in the midst of a seizure, and, oh yeah, three flocks of birds crashing into their house, that Lacy Barrett (Felicity‘s Keri Russell) investigates the possibility of alien abduction.
In this time of CGI overload, it’s refreshing that the aliens are shadowy, lurking figures, which makes them much more frightening than those presented in similar films, such as Signs. This is an effective use of haunted house horror tropes, and it works well with the tense, dark atmosphere the film builds. All of these factors provide some good jump scares. Unfortunately, the jump scares are the main ones, since the pacing of the film doesn’t quite do enough with the built-up tension. By the time we actually get to the bigger scares, we’ve already been waiting too long for something to happen.
Without doubt, the highlight of the film comes via the always-great J.K. Simmons, who portrays a seeming crackpot/regular abductee. While providing a lot of the humor in an otherwise dour storyline, his character also gives the Barrett parents a cache of information (which alien/UFO buffs will appreciate, since it’s well-informed), and confirms their abduction fears. He also provides a few crucial clues for the twist at the end of the film, which, if you’ve paid attention, you’ll probably be able to guess immediately.
The film is an adept and interesting take on alien abduction, and it contains a few genre references which can be appreciated. Its use of the “haunted family” angle is a relatively fresh approach, but it does little to innovate overall. The concept is strong and will resonate well with fans of the haunted house film, but they may leave wishing the film had dared to do more.