Few things are as terrifying as the thought of not being safe in your own home. This is where horror movies have made their base of operations since way back. They’re also, largely, one of the easiest varieties to do. All you need is a house and a family/nubile young lady to terrorize. In years past, the perpetrator was a big guy with a knife and a mask; today, it’s generally the “unknown supernatural force.” This is the basic setup for the new film by writer-director Scott Stewart, Dark Skies, which almost immediately makes its supernatural force known. You’ve got a nice family, a bright suburb, maybe some family squabbling, and you add to it something scary. In this case, it’s aliens. The film was produced by Blumhouse Productions, the people who brought us Sinister, Insidious, and all the Paranormal Activity films, so they know a thing or two about making suburban horror.
Dark Skies begins with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke about the existence of extraterrestrials. From there, we’re introduced to the Barrett family, a typical middle-class family in suburban California (or wherever) who are having financial troubles. Fairly relatable. The patriarch, Daniel (Josh Hamilton), is an architect who has lost his job. I’m pretty sure architect is a profession that only exists in movies. If as many people were actually architects as film and TV would have us believe, then we’d have more buildings than cars. At any rate, he’s been out of work, leaving his wife Lacy (Keri Russell), a realtor, as the only breadwinner. Their two children, 13-year-old Jesse (Real Steel’s Dakota Goyo) and 6-year-old Sam (Kadan Rockett) are dealing as well as possible, spending many nights talking to each other via walkie-talkies. Cute, right?
The problem begins when weird occurrences start happening in the night, like photos going missing, and strange spinny configurations of stuff in the kitchen. There’s also the strange predicament of their burglar alarm going off and never having proof that anyone was actually there. Things pick up when the younger boy begins mentioning having dreams where he’s speaking to a tall, thin, grey man he believes to be the Sandman. Each member of the family also begins losing periods of time and doing things they don’t remember doing. Troubling, to say the least. The children then start exhibiting strange bruises, for which the parents, naturally, are suspected. Their friends and neighbors begin looking at them strangely. With their options limited, and the evidence of what it might actually be starts piling up, the parents go to see an expert they found online, played by J.K. Simmons. He tells them a very disturbing truth: that their family will not be normal again.
The story is pretty familiar, but what Dark Skies excels at is making the family unit feel real. There’s quite a lot of time spent with them when very little scary stuff is going on, and it’s not boring. It’s also quite adept at its scenes of tension which usually pays off in actually seeing something weird or frightening and not relying on jump scares, though there are a couple of those. With the budget as low as it is, the filmmakers didn’t have a lot of special effects to rely on which is to its benefit. Less is more with horror, especially in a situation where lesser movies would have shown lots and lots of special effects. Remember Jaws, everybody? Slow build horror movies are such a welcome respite from the torture porn that was all the rage a few years ago.
The cast is also very good. Hamilton and Russell are not staples of this genre of film and a lot of time was spent making them believable as people and parents who just have to deal with extraordinary activity. J.K. Simmons in his limited role also brings a lot of gravity, humor, and believability to what is essentially just an exposition-spewer. He’s a great actor and should be in every movie. He earns the “and” in the credits. The young actors are also better than they could be. The little boy has a very creepy otherworldly quality to him and the older boy seems a great deal older than his 13 years.
Now, while I mostly thought this movie was good, there are some things that don’t work very well, and the majority of these happen in the third act. The movie’s only 85 minutes and it probably could have stood to be longer, because it just seems to wrap up very quickly. Everything’s just a little too convenient. When they go to visit Simmons’ character, he’s supposed to test them to see if there’s enough evidence of alien activity. Basically everything he asks is confirmed by the family. It would have been nice if there was a bit more ambiguity. We also don’t get to see very much of the family becoming outcasts among their friends. They aren’t and then suddenly they are.
The most egregious thing is the climax, unfortunately. It’s shot well and acted pretty well, but it immediately becomes the third act of Signs. There’s even the scene of the family reminiscing about when each of the children was born. The final attack is fairly well handled, but it’s all too fast. The movie does a great job of slowly building suspense and making people feel real, and then the ending is so rushed it becomes slightly laughable. These people wouldn’t do these things in the way they’re doing them. There’s also an “ah-HA” moment, which may or may not need to be there, but there’s a very unnecessary Saw-esque montage of all the things we should have seen all the way leading up to that moment. Of course we have; it’s not that subtle.
Dark Skies is definitely a lot better than it has most right to be, but it ultimately feels like a great idea and performances lessened by a very familiar and rushed third act. You’ll be entertained, and even thrilled, but a singular experience it is not.