(by Dustin Putman
Made independently for just $10-million, then bought after the fact by Universal and Relativity Media, alien-invasion thriller "Skyline" looks more expensive than it is even as the seams occasionally show. Directed by special effects artists and brothers Colin and Greg Strause (2007's "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem")—their personal FX house called Hydraulx naturally also worked on it—the film is certainly ambitious and appropriately epic in scale, but also hampered by a plaguing amateurishness in its other aspects. With the plot seemingly cycling in circles up until a bracing final sequence more imaginative and chilling than anything that has come before it, the finished outcome comes off a little sudsy and a little aimless, a minor step above a Sy-Fy Original sauteed with the theatrics of a "Melrose Place"-type nighttime soap. Article continues below
It starts with beams of mysterious blue light shooting down across the Los Angeles sky, and before long hundreds of people at a time are being sucked up into giant alien spacecrafts. News from the television and internet are abruptly severed, certain stations showing desolate studios with the anchors' chairs still and empty. Desperate to evade capture and with an ideal vantage point from atop an apartment high-rise are Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson), New Yorkers wishing they'd never decided to come visit his long-time buddy, rising musician Terry (Donald Faison). Believing that they are sitting ducks where they're at, Jarrod and Terry figure that if they can make it to the nearby marina, a boat might be their best bet out of the danger zone.
"Skyline" comes nowhere close to the respective heights of 2005's "War of the Worlds" or 2008's "Cloverfield," both near the top of their respective subgenre, but it's also certainly better than a shoddy disaster like 2007's "Dragon Wars," Individual visuals, usually of an uneven CG persuasion, are the bread and butter of directors Colin and Greg Strause. Images of hoards of people being suctioned through the air and into the mouths of the aliens and their ships are freakishly inspired, as are the exploits of tentacled creatures who roam the city in search of remaining prey. The choice to make the invaders utterly indomitable—they regenerate themselves when harmed and are soon as good as new—increase the sense of gloom and doom, leaving one to question how there could possibly be a happy Hollywood ending (minor spoiler: there's not).
On less solid ground is what surrounds the money shots. The screenplay was written by first-timers Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell, both of them also hailing from visual effects backgrounds, and it's sketchy at best. The characters are slim as pencils, their relationships grafted to their bare essentials and their interpersonal conflicts just plain silly as they play out against an imminently apocalyptic, life-or-death backdrop. With nasty giant aliens coming from all directions, Jarrod and Elaine face the fresh knowledge of her pregnancy while Candice (Brittany Daniel) pouts about boyfriend Terry's cheating ways with Denise (Crystal Reed). In one unintentionally funny scene, Terry speaks two clichéd lines in a row, both major no-no's according to 1996's "Scream:" "We should check it out" and "we'll be right back." Even more ridiculously, Elaine informs Candice that she's pregnant and would prefer to avoid second-hand smoke when she nervously lights a cigarette. These characters are about as dumb as their priorities.
Performances are passable, but no more than that; it's obvious the Strauses skimped on casting as a way to save money. They also apparently were not concerned with top-of-the-line camera equipment or lighting. Barring the flashy effects, the movie's aesthetics are ugly. Shot largely in daytime settings, the cinematography by Michael Watson is flat and frequently hazy, looking like they were filmed through heavy smog and in dust-riddled rooms. Other shots, especially the handheld ones, stink of their resemblance to photography you'd expect to find on television cop shows rather than in theatrical features.
Derivative with hints of something approaching ingenuity, "Skyline" eventually grows repetitive as the action almost wholly takes place on the same apartment block. For that matter, It's difficult to root for anyone since they're all ciphers and not exactly the warmest of individuals. Following a climactic battle where Jarrod gets into a fist fight with an alien—yes, you read that right—directors Craig and Greg Strause pull a rabbit out of their hat in the closing minutes, daring to explore the interior of the UFO when certain characters get swallowed up. A creepy coda stunningly economical in the way that events transpire without the need for exposition or any dialogue at all, the last minutes invigoratingly raise the bar while moving in a direction that the already-planned sequel would be wise to follow through with. For all of its effects expertise, "Skyline" is a dramatically inert experience until finally, at long last, it isn't anymore. Cue the credits.