(by Dustin Putman
Leading up to the theatrical release of "Dark Skies," distributor Dimension Films did not exactly inspire optimism in impending viewers. Not only did the picture not screen in advance for press—nearly always a stark sign of a studio's lack of faith in the quality of their product—but memos were sent out to theater chains forbidding them to run the film at late-Thursday midnight showings. This latter occurrence was then, at the last minute, retracted, but by then feelings of doubt had already materialized. Having now seen "Dark Skies," one can only question and scoff at Dimension's gross negligence in supporting what is sure to go down as one of 2013's early sleeper surprises, an intensely evocative, absolutely spine-tingling thriller that paints an empathetic portrait of realistically strained modern-day suburban domesticity before little by little introducing a rasping pall of doom decidedly a bit more troubling than some missed mortgage payments. It is a terrible shame that the movie now must carry with it a negative stigma because it's a whole lot better than that, earning the right through its very intelligence and air-tight grasp of informed genre filmmaking to be uttered in the same breath as 1993's "Fire in the Sky" and 2002's "Signs." Article continues below
The Barrett family live in a peaceful, well-to-do community, sharing barbecues with friends and neighbors and putting on carefree airs. Behind closed doors, however, they are struggling with mounting stress and a pile-up of bills. Mother Lacy (Keri Russell), a real estate agent, heaps pressure on herself to sell fixer-uppers to prospective buyers. Father Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has been laid off for too long and desperately needs a job. 13-year-old son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) has begun hanging out with an older boy down the street who Lacy and Daniel are correct in believing is a bad influence, while their youngest, Sam (Kadan Rockett), can't get enough of his big brother's scary stories. Literally overnight, strange things begin to take place, from their security system being simultaneously breached at all eight entry points, to photos vanishing from frames, to an array of cans and dishes seemingly materializing in ornate stacked configurations on the kitchen table. Confusion and skepticism is eventually replaced by outright fear when Lacy is convinced she sees a figure hovering over Sam's bed. Bruises and mysterious branding marks show up on the kids' bodies, and all four of them begin to sleepwalk and lose track of time. What, exactly, is happening to them, and why are they being targeted? Long before Lacy and Daniel decide to visit extraterrestrial expert Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), they've pretty much already come to the conclusion that what troubles them is not of this world.
At a time when studio-produced horror films too often are destroyed by needless higher-up interference, "Dark Skies" thrives on the singular vision of writer-director Scott Stewart (2010's "Legion"), a man who knows all very well what it's like when an overabundance of hands start stirring the same pot. Fortunately, that hasn't befell him this time, the results all the better for sticking to the riveting story at hand without losing sight of the key component in caring at all about what happens: dynamically written, three-dimensional protagonists. Initial conventions—the discovery of a ransacked refrigerator from an incorrectly presumed wild animal, followed by the aforementioned stacked objects in the kitchen—are broadly reminiscent of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Poltergeist." From there, the experience grows exceedingly more absorbing and sinister, a dark cloud settling over the Barretts that none of them can escape from. Paced with a methodical deliberateness that expertly draws its audience in, the film needs not fall into the trap of hoary jump scares and the like (by my count, there is only one, the rest of the time the frights and seat-jolting coming from one's deep involvement in the onscreen goings-on rather than false alarms popping out at random). Writer-director Scott Stewart trusts in the power of his committed actors, his tautly woven script that vividly pays attention to the psychology of his four-person family dynamic, and the sort of super-classy lensing from cinematographer David Boyd (2012's "Joyful Noise") which confidently—and creepily—turns a vision of middle-class normalcy on its malevolently dysfunctional head.
Keri Russell (2010's "Extraordinary Measures") and Josh Hamilton (2011's "J. Edgar") transcend all expectations of the kind of performances that normally come from films where things go bump in the night. As married couple Lacy and Daniel, Russell and Hamilton are not merely conduits for spooky stuff happening to them, but are given plausible, layered people to play, the struggles in their marriage running parallel to inexplicable events they cannot decipher. Sure, it takes about a scene too long for Daniel's skepticism to subside, but then again he's playing a stubborn guy with a relatively short fuse. As sons Jesse and Sam, Dakota Goyo (2011's "Real Steel") and newcomer Kadan Rockett are unaffected naturals, with Goyo especially memorable as a young teenager whose raging hormones coincide with something much larger that he also cannot understand. In a supporting role treated with an appreciable seriousness, J.K. Simmons (2012's "The Words") all but wholly disappears into the role of Edwin Pollard, a man who identifies with the Barretts because he knows what they are going through.
For long stretches, "Dark Skies" works like gangbusters, courageously delving into bleak subject matter colliding with some money shots that just may have audiences searching for a pillow to cower behind. Rarely straying into an over-the-top zone, writer-director Scott Stewart plays by his own rules while coming up with a last few scenes that are at once baffling, thought-provokingly symbolic, and incalculably sorrowful. If the Barretts are left with frustratingly more questions than answers, that's the point and the damn of it all. Indeed, they may never be able to grasp all that they've faced and what it means, but they do know firsthand that yes, being aware of a universe in which we are not alone is every bit as terrifying as one in which we are.