Dark Skies: Film Review

Dark Skies Keri Russell - H 2013
Dimension Films

Dark Skies Keri Russell - H 2013

There’s little to fear from this rather tame genre outing.

"Priest" and "Legion" director Scott Stewart returns with an alien-visitation tale that co-stars Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton.

While not advance press-screened by distributor Dimension Films, audiences still have a pretty good idea of what to expect when genre director Scott Stewart teams with Paranormal Activity franchise originator Blumhouse Productions on an alien-abduction suspenser. Despite true believers and core horror and fantasy demos evincing opening-weekend curiosity, enthusiasm is likely to diminish noticeably with lukewarm word of mouth, although ancillary prospects appear robust.

Just like folks everywhere, Daniel and Lacy Barrett are a loving couple with a growing family and too many bills to pay. Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has been laid off from his job as an architect and realtor Lacy (Keri Russell) is constantly struggling to make a home sale, but properties aren't moving in their nondescript suburban town. With two young sons to look out for – young teen Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and his kid brother Sam (Kadan Rockett) – they’re fighting foreclosure on their house and other mounting debts.

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So it seems like just one more inconvenience when strange things begin happening in their home, with the contents of their fridge and cupboards disgorged into the kitchen late at night, the inexplicable disappearance of family photos from their frames and false alarms triggering their home-security system. Things go from messy to spooky when Sam explains the mysterious developments by saying that the “Sandman” has been paying him nightly visits, causing his parents increasing concern. Daniel’s gambit of rigging the house with security cameras reveals a nocturnal energy force coursing through the house, but it’s the mass suicide of dozens of birds mysteriously smacking into the exterior of their home and bouts of trance-like disassociation they’re all suffering that really unnerve the couple.

Lacy’s Internet research reveals similar incidents plaguing other families, all associated with alien visitation, but it isn’t until reclusive ET expert Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons) provides the menacing context for the strange rashes, nosebleeds and marks on their bodies that Daniel and Lacy go into overdrive in an attempt to protect the safety of their family.

While mostly skirting the effects-dependent plot devices of his earlier releases Legion and Priest, Stewart borrows heavily from notable supernatural and sci-fi predecessors, managing to noticeably devalue the effectiveness of the alien-abduction subgenre with overly deliberate pacing, miscued suspense and fairly predictable plotting.

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Never quite sure if he’s relying more on horror or sci-fi conventions to drive the narrative, Stewart can’t seem to muster much tension by relying predominantly on his intermittently effective cast. Russell generates some persuasive emotion in a few key scenes, but gets held back by Hamilton’s curiously stiff performance and nearly upstaged by Simmons’ simmering, low-key appearance.

Approaching the first half of the film fairly conventionally, Stewart then misses the opportunity to capitalize on shifting to more full-on genre mode, although cinematographer David Boyd’s visuals are solid throughout and composer Joseph Bishara’s unnerving score supports the action without overwhelming it. The film’s brief coda succinctly caps the few final twists while unsubtly tipping its sequel potential.  

Opens: Feb. 22 (Dimension Films)

Production companies: Alliance Films, Blumhouse Productions, Robotproof Productions

Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, J.K. Simmons, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, Josh Stamberg, L.J. Benet

Director-writer: Scott Stewart
Producer: Jason Blum
Executive producers: Scott Stewart, Charles Layton, Brian Kavanaugh-
Jones, Jeff Okin, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Director of photography: David Boyd
Production designer: Jeff Higinbotham
Costume designer: Kelle Kutsugeras
Editor: Peter Gvozdas
Music: Joseph Bishara    

Rated PG-13, 97 minutes