Movie Review: Dark Skies
By Matthew Huntley
March 4, 2013

Over a decade later, she finally has the nerve to look at her infamous Felicity haircut.

Dark Skies is a sneaky, well-crafted thriller about a suburban family who are suddenly tormented by otherworldly beings. It’s not the brightest - and certainly not the most original - of its kind, but it has more than its fair share of effective moments. The important thing is we eventually come to care about the characters, a little quality that goes a long way, especially when the surrounding material is inherently silly and we feel like we’ve seen it a hundred times before.

The generically-titled film finds the Barrett family, who live in a leafy, upper middle class neighborhood of Los Angeles, facing strange phenomena. In the middle of the night, Lacy (Keri Russell), the wife and mother, comes downstairs and finds the refrigerator ransacked. Food is spilled all over the floor and the back door is open. She and her husband, Daniel (Josh Hamilton), assume a wild animal helped itself inside and made its way through their barbecue leftovers.

Fair enough, but then the next night, Lacy comes downstairs again, and this time, food, condiments and dinnerware are stacked on top of each other in a delicate balancing act. Lacy is understandably shocked and mesmerized by the display, whose shadows form odd geometric shapes on the ceiling. At this point, I expected to hear “Entrance of the Gladiators” on the soundtrack, and even Daniel asks an investigating cop if this is some mathematical genius’s idea of a sick joke. “I don’t know whether to be angry or impressed,” he says.

Lacy and Daniel have two kids – Jesse (Dakota Goyo), who’s just entered the realm of rebellious adolescence, and young Sammy (Kadan Rockett), who emotes one of those curious childhood expressions that suggests maybe he knows what’s going on. When Lacy asks him, he says it was the Sandman. Is the Sandman just a figment of Sammy’s imagination, which he’s concocted from all those outer space ghost stories that Jesse tells him before bed? Or could it be that Sammy is disturbed and needs a child therapist? Or is there really a Sandman?

More strange things start to occur, not least of which is three different flocks of birds flying kamikaze style into the Barrett’s house and windows; or the random disappearance of all the family photos; or Sammy suddenly wetting his pants at the park and having no memory of it; or the house alarm getting triggered from all eight entry points simultaneously. And then there’s the matter of different members of the family experiencing blackouts, nosebleeds and rashes.

All this prompts Lacy to do some research on the Internet, which leads her and Daniel, who stubbornly remains a non-believer for most of the movie, to Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons). He’s one of those alien conspiracy theorists who informs the Barretts…well, I can’t really say without giving away crucial plot information, which would be unfair since the movie relies on our learning about what’s happening just as the family does.

What I can tell you is Simmons’ scene the best in the film, not only because of Simmons’ frank performance, but because it demystifies the idea there’s anything special about the Barretts, which was a refreshing and unexpected twist given the premise. So often in movies like this, we get a cheap explanation for why things are happening, like the house is built over an Indian burial ground, or one of the family members was born on a particular date that set off a particular chain of events, etc. Here the reasoning is more grounded, which might be considered a copout by those who think writer-director Scott Stewart simply couldn’t come up with anything better, but I found it more realistic and credible.

To be sure, there’s nothing terribly innovative or surprising about Dark Skies, which derives a lot of its material and atmosphere from other movies like The Exorcist, The Forgotten, and Paranormal Activity, and indeed one of the studio’s selling points is that it’s from the producer of the latter. Stewart doesn’t exactly infuse his screenplay with any inspirational developments, but he does give the film a certain level of creepiness, mystery, heart and drama, which collectively allow us to get caught up in the story. By no means is this movie a game changer, but as a straight genre picture, it’s entertaining and we do care about what happens to the Barrett family. In this particular case, that’s enough to marginally recommend it.