DVDanger: Dark Skies
Keri Russell is a modern suburban scream queen
By Richard Whittaker, 5:50PM, Mon. Jun. 3, 2013
Remember when we still liked Nicole Kidman? No, I'm not running for a VHS of BMX Bandits, and I'm not talking about Moulin Rouge. I mean the Nicole Kidman that was tempted to cool, interesting genre scripts like The Others and The Invasion? Apparently Keri Russell has started intercepting her mail.
Dark Skies (Starz/Anchor Bay, Blu-Ray combo pack) should not to be confused with the sadly forgotten revisionist history X-Files knock-off of the same name, or the Noah Wyle alien invasion drama Falling Skies. That said, there are a fair few films with which it could be confused: The 'something weird in the house' flick. Recently they've tended to be demonic possession dramas: Instead, Dark Skies is a fairly run-of-the-mill alien home invasion, with one nice twist. Everyone involved is kinda fucked. It's not just the greys trying to steal Kerri's kids: It's the neighbors wondering why their nice neighbors have started violating the homeowners association rules about no intergalactic kidnappings at the weekend. That's fucked. And I like that about it.
I mean, seriously, when you watch Poltergeist, do you not think, "Wait, why has no-one called child protective services?" Well, in Dark Skies, that's what they do.
Dark Skies is the latest suburban horror release from Blumhouse: That's the mid-low budget stable of producer Jason Blum, who made his cash and his reputation with the Paranormal Activity franchise. In fact, this was originally conceived of as a straight found footage movie. As the commentary track explains, Blum talked writer/director Scott Stewart off that ledge, instead getting him to play with some found footage components a la Sinister. Stewart has specialized so far in fun if very overblown Paul Bettany vehicles like Legion and Priest, so the almost complete lack of visual insanity is a nice change of pace for him.
(Side note: There're more than a few Austin connections here. Cinematographer David Boyd was a regular DP on Friday Night Lights, while executive producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones produced another chalk mark on the Blumhouse slate, Sinister, written by local scipter C. Robert Cargill.)
He undoubtedly is making the most of a highly limited budget. There's a nod to the Poltergeist chair stacking that is a cost-saving version of a big alien reveal. Plus, if you're a fan of wonderful bit-part over-acting, wait for the alarm company engineer. We're talking Jerry the Pool Guy awesome. But he limits himself in all the smart ways, replacing lots of VFX with some subtle sound works, and depending on this radical new concept called actors.
It helps that Stewart has Russell who, as the producers gush on the commentary, is just spectacular in a low-key fashion. As the mother of two kids and spouse of a failing architect (Josh Hamilton, currently appearing opposite Greta Gerwig in the much classier Frances Ha), she's the one who leads the audience down the garden path to where the UFO has parked.
Russell could sell a drowning man a glass of water. She is responsible for one of the most overlooked SXSW horror films, 2007's cannibal love story Grimm Love. There she played a university researcher working on a paper about a German man who advertised for someone to let him eat them. A thinly veiled retelling of the Armin Meiwes case, it ended up in all kinds of legal troubles and has ended up as a Chiller channel oddity. It's a shame, because Russell manages something pretty special: She makes the character feel endangered at every turn even though there's no physical threat. That's no mean feat, especially since she does it without depending on cheap scares with no delivery.Dark Skies is like Grimm Love: If you can't believe that Russell believes it, the core conceit goes nowhere. She makes it credible that this family, which is going through all the standard post-crash economic and social woes, is also getting screwed with by aliens.
There is, as is inevitable with such things, a post-X-Files vibe, and that's re-enforced when J.K. Simmons turns up as ufologist Edwin Pollard. Aside from looking like Mitch Pileggi's evil twin (Hollywood! Put these two in a movie NOW) he has that same kind of road-weary charisma, athletic but deflated by age. As he walks the family through exactly how fucked they are, he steers the film straight towards Blumhouse waters. It's nice to see scripts where there's no guarantee how many, if any, of the core cast will survive. When Pollard explains why he doesn't live around dogs, it's a smartly-written exploration of uncanny desperation.
Cut through the Mulder and Scully-isms, and there's a 70s vibe to the deal, back when good character actors like George C. Scott would be quite happy to go toe-to-toe with the devil, or the lights in the sky. Oo, oo, Blumhouse, if you have a script that would work for Russell and Sinister star Ethan Hawke, I'd watch that.