Friday, February 22, 2013

Modestly chilling "Dark Skies" upends cloudy expectations

Dark Skies (2013)
95 min., rated PG-13.

No wonder "Dark Skies" is being carelessly dumped into multiplexes in February (the weekend of the Academy Awards no less) by distributor Dimension Films not because it's bad or critic-proof but because it's not really marketable when being touted as a blasé product "from the producer [Jason Blum] of 'Paranormal Activity,' 'Insidious,' and 'Sinister'." Skeptical as one may be, including the studio that obviously has no faith in its own product, "Dark Skies" is a modestly effective chiller with a science-fiction bent that's smarter than expected. Writer-director Scott Stewart (who was responsible for 2010's often enjoyably stupid "Legion" and 2011's empty, forgettable "Priest") hasn't had much luck with his horror-fantasy features, showing no more than mere competence at throwing name actors (Paul Bettany twice) in front of the camera. Leave it to Stewart to finally hit his stride with "Dark Skies," his chance to rile up actual tension. Instead of existing in a desert town or a dystopian future, Stewart's third feature is the first to view a mundane reality being removed of its domestic peace and day-to-day pressures by something otherworldly and more threatening.

During the week before the Fourth of July, Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel Barrett (Josh Hamilton) are just living their routine lives as a realtor and an architect in between jobs, respectively, while trying to stay on top of their finances. Their hormone-raging 13-year-old son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo), has been hanging out with an older punk who's a bad influence in Dad's opinion, and young Sam (Kadan Rockett) likes hearing spooky stories about "The Sandman" read by his brother via walkie-talkies before they go to bed. Then in the middle of the night, Lacy wakes up to find the refrigerator ransacked and the back door open, as if a wild (but vegetarian) animal broke in. Dun-dun-dun! The next few nights start out prankish and get increasingly bizarre, from the ornate stacking of cereal boxes and kitchenware on the table, to family photos going missing from their frames, to (strangest of all) the home security system being breached at all eight entry points and Lacy walking into Jesse's room to find a slender figure standing over her son's bed. As the Barrett family's lives unravel furtherall four begin sleepwalking, discovering markings on their bodies, and experiencing out-of-body episodes where they lose time in a daythey finally realize that they might be up against something unexplainable and bigger than their micro neighborhood. Mulder and Scully, where are you?

Unfolding with a quiet, measured sense of foreboding, "Dark Skies" admirably takes its time, a quality that's far more of an asset than a criticism for today's horror films. Stewart shows enough skill and know-how by not relying on an onslaught of jump scares but driving the nightly occurrences with deliberately escalating chills and, in one instance, nicely subverts our expectations with the stand-by of a dream sequence. Joseph Bishara's ominous score also lends a generous amount of stingers and piercing ringing that's positively disorienting. The late-night sounding of the security alarm might seem derivative of "Insidious," the stacking of kitchen objects will remind of "Poltergeist," and, of course, Daniel's eventual investment of home surveillance takes a page out of any of the thirty "Paranormal Activity" movies. But that's no problem because the helmer dishes out a handful of nifty shocks—the Barrett home being showered with suicidal birds and Lacy having a "breakdown" while she's showing a home to a couple—while refraining from loony schlock or full-on glimpses of the CG'd invaders.

Outside of Stewart and his production team's doing, the actors are given time to create developed characters that we can actually invest ourselves in. Russell and Hamilton convincingly and empathetically convey the stresses of paying off bills and a mortgage, as well as the panic and fear when such menacing forces take over their family. They have more to do than just look terrorized. As the sons, Goyo and Rockett are impressive, both resonating as characters at radically different stages in their early lives. Taking a break from his Farmers Insurance Group commercials, J.K. Simmons briefly turns in a credible performance without an ounce of ham in his bones as a reclusive, cat-owning extraterrestrial expert. He enlightens Lacy and Daniel on the alien species known as "The Grays" without playing up the conspiracy-theorist hysterics.

An opening quote from sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke"Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying"assures us that this thriller is more thought-provoking than not. As a whole, the film raises more questions than answers, like why the invaders would target this particular family. Even if "Dark Skies" isn't the most groundbreaking or frightening film on the planet, next to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Signs," and the under-appreciated "The Fourth Kind," it's more hauntingly bleak and capable of inducing more hair-raising than the abandonment by its own distributor would suggest. If one can trust the fear of the unknown like this film's creator, then you might just believe.

Grade: B - 

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