The opening frames of this film quote the profound wisdom of an acknowledged grand master of science fiction, Sir Arthur C Clarke – “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This moment sets up the entire film, both in that it points the way to the two possibilities that face the troubled Barrett family, that they are being targeted by an extraterrestrial intelligence or that their problems lie entirely within themselves, and in that every single moment within the film has been taken from another source, with no attempt to disguise or personalise the appropriations.
Writer/director Scott Stewart is not known for originality; responsible for Legion in 2010, he promptly remade his own film, even so far as featuring the same leasing man, releasing it as Priest in 2011. Here he has at least expanded his worldview, his principal “inspiration” being Steven Spielberg, a phase many filmmakers pass through earlier rather than later in their careers, the credits rolling against a reverential opening credit bicycle ride through a suburban neighbourhood, familiar to anyone who recalls E.T. before we are introduced to an affluent white nuclear family comprising architect Daniel, estate agent Lacy and their children Jesse and Sammy.
As the flickering streetlights signal the increasing intrusions into their lives, household items arrange themselves into complicated suspended arrangements, much like the kitchenware of Poltergeist, and the objects of specific interest are the children as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it is with this film that Dark Skies not only shares its aliens, the spindly greys who choose to hide in shadow, but their lighting director, too, shafts of blinding light streaking through cracks in doorways and in the boreholes left as screws unwind themselves, and Spielberg’s own influence Kubrick is revisited in the disjointed editing of the final scenes, lifted wholesale from the corresponding moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This is not to say that Spielberg is the sole influence; Philip Kaufmans’ 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is recalled, though fortunately despite the installation of security cameras throughout the house, it manages to avoid descending into Paranormal Activity levels of obsession with the captured footage, but while it desperately wishes to ride the wave of X File conspiracy theory and alien abduction paranoia, Daniel at one point confessing “I’m ready to believe,” instead it only succeeds in dragging decade old mud over the carpet.
The sole strength of the film is the performances of the leads and the facets of the family dynamics they are asked to show; Daniel, seeing his son playing with an injured lizard, questions whether the captivity is compassion or torture, yet over a family dinner demonstrates casually cruelty in the way he speaks of the neighbours; similarly Lacy sees her children at play and compares it to warfare, though a significant contrast between the two is that Daniel will lie to his family, while Lacy will not even lie to strangers. Jesse, the older son, has a strong bond with Sammy, reading him bedtime stories via walkie talkie, yet while he is the only character to speak with kindness or of forgiveness, he is desensitised to others, taking advantage of empty properties his mother has access to for drug parties and watching porn with his friends.
The role of J K Simmon’s alien abduction “expert” is unclear, for though his performance is deadly serious, his dialogue is ridiculous, paraphrasing the tagline of Close Encounters when he tells them “You aren’t alone in this,” describing the types of aliens (greys, insectoids and reptilians, though he personally doesn’t believe in reptilians), before announcing gravely “The presence of the greys is now a fact of life, like death and taxes,” before advising them that the best way to survive is to unite as a family, which for the Barretts, who proudly display two Stars and Stripes flags on their lawn, means barricading themselves in and buying guns, accepting without question the word a man located via an internet search who declares the visitors have come “millions of light years,” presumably meaning the Andromeda Galaxy rather than the marginally less preposterous forty light years to Zeta Reticuli.
Another quote which Scott Stewart should be made aware of is Alastair Reynolds‘ statement that the art of science fiction if often not so much telling a new story as finding a new way to tell an old one, as here Scott has done neither. Dark Skies is not a bad film, it is in fact very slickly structured and performed, but it has not one original thought behind it or a single cunningly twisted redeployment in its arsenal. That the whole film is summed up in the final scene by the placement of a newspaper clipping on a conspiracy theorist’s wall of crazy amongst a blanket of similar clippings demonstrates how forgettable and generic the film is. Like The Woman in Black, a horror film designed for an audience who had never seen one before, while Dark Skies may be marginally preferable to the endless cycle of named remakes, it is further evidence that the target demographic of Hollywood is children wholly illiterate in the language of cinema or its history, and their underestimation of that audience is the loss of all.