Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. Opening with these immortal words of Arthur C. Clarke, Dark Skies, the third film by Scott Stewart blends horror with supernatural science fiction. The fact that the popular computer game XCOM: Enemy Unknown used the exact same quote six months earlier should by no means impede upon the quality of the film. It does not however, help it to draw such instant comparisons, especially when the title is exactly the same as a cult television series from the mid-1990s.
After Lacy Barrett (Keri Russell) and her husband Daniel (Josh Hamilton) host a BBQ for friends around the neighbourhood, they retire to bed with their children Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sammy (Kadan Rockett). During the night, Lacy hears a noise and goes downstairs to find food from the fridge spread all over the floor. Assuming it was a wild animal, the family clear up the mess and go about their daily lives. However after discovering items from the kitchen arranged in an odd fashion and hearing all of their alarms going off simultaneously they begin to suspect something is wrong. Meanwhile Sammy begins to have nightmares about a strange figure called ‘The Sandman’ who he blames for all the strange happenings.
Ignoring the obvious problems that plague so many horror films ‘Why does no one ever turn on any lights?’ ‘Why do they insist on splitting up even though they’ve been strictly told not to?” Dark Skies main problem is actually with the pacing and suspense. The premise is decent enough if cliched, but the direction is at best workmanlike and at worst, lazy. There are obvious potential scare moments that are teased but never fully realised and when the big jump moments actually do happen they lack scare factor and simply rely on loud noises rather than meaningful suspense.
The final problem with Dark Skies lies with the characters. We’re used to seeing caricatures and stereotypes who behave in a predetermined way, but we’re also used to caring about said characters. The parents of the Barrett family are so dull and frustrating that there’s a temptation to hope that bad things do happen to them. Hamilton’s father is stressed, petulant and a prickish failure, while Russell’s Lacy is cold, distant and so painfully thin that it’s tough to imagine her being able to survive a strong gust of wind, never mind a home invasion. Worse than the parents though are the children who are unbearable. Some grace can be granted to the younger Sammy, although the timing of his speech patterns is distracting. Dakota Goyo, best know for his somewhat unhinged turn in Real Steel, has grown a little older, but has somehow become more annoying.
The advertising of Dark Skies uses the tagline ‘They’re coming’ an obvious riff on the Spielberg/Hooper 1982 classic Poltergeist which used ‘They’re here’ to such chilling effect. There are shoe-horned references to Poltergeist throughout like static from the television at key moments, communication of a child trapped who knows where and there’s even a famous character actor cast as an ‘expert.’ Sadly not even the appearance of the excellent J.K. Simmons can save the film and to invite such comparison is a dangerous game, especially when your product is so mundane and disappointing. In fact while noting the similarities with other films and games, I was just reminded how good Poltergeist and XCOM actually are and how I wished I was watching or playing them instead of suffering through Dark Skies.