***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, J.K. Simmons
written and directed by Scott Stewart
by Bill Chambers Dark Skies takes place in the days leading up to the Fourth of July. The movie thus promises fireworks--and it delivers, albeit on a modest scale befitting its humble suburban milieu. Like Signs, it's such an insular take on the alien-visitation genre it could almost be performed on the stage; unlike Signs, it's not pious to a fault (surprisingly, given that writer-director Scott Stewart previously made Legion and Priest), and its lapses in logic aren't as maddening because they're built into the film's very ethos, with a Whitley Streiber type (lent unexpected pathos by a Hunter S. Thompson-dressed J.K. Simmons) opining late in the proceedings that aliens are unfathomable to us in the same way that humans are unfathomable to lab rats. There are a lot of superficial similarities to Signs, actually, such as the way the picture uses asthma and walkie-talkie devices as narrative keystones and its climactic transformation of the family home into a fortress. For that matter, Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are liberally paraphrased as well; over three films, Stewart has shown himself to be nothing if not a magpie artist. The good news, which would normally be upsetting news, is that the producers of Dark Skies are Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who seem to rein in Stewart's other bad habits, like snail's pacing and a tendency towards arcane mythology. Third time's the charm.
Indeed, the film can be deliciously cinematic. While perceptual fake-outs are a staple of millennial cinema, in Dark Skies--which eventually surrenders to an unreliable narrator in assuming the storytelling P.O.V. of our heroes' alien tormentors, trickster gods who blur the line between reality and dreaming (Sam thinks the Sandman himself is stalking him)--the numerous instances of characters darting awake begin to take on the absurd flavour and nested complexity of vintage Buñuel. And the picture is low-rent enough that it can get away with not only using the supermarket-tabloid language of ufologists to identify its aliens, but also doing as much with sound as it does with CGI, if not more. (This is where Stewart, a former effects man, becomes a total filmmaker.) One of my favourite moments is a P.O.V. shot that turns expediting jump cuts into otherworldly temporal blips by amplifying the disturbing soundtrack hum at the point of each edit. It's more effective, frankly, than the one or two awkwardly-rendered shots we get of the "Grays," who are at least used sparingly.
But the pièce de résistance is a surprise ending in the proud tradition of Rod Serling: It's ironic yet, in retrospect, bleakly inevitable. (Major spoilers ahead.) Simmons's expert, a survivor of the same circumstances the Barretts are going through, warns them that the aliens have earmarked one of their children for abduction and that their only hope is to hold onto him with every ounce of physical and psychic strength they have. Lacy and Daniel reasonably assume, since Sam is the most sensitive to the aliens' presence, that he's the one they're after, opening the door for them to snatch Jesse instead. This twist is, I think, what has led some to dismiss the film as "conservative," in the sense that it's really a metaphor for Jesse's parents realizing too late that they've lost him to the evils of marijuana and sex. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt, though, because Dark Skies resonates for me not as some hysterical cautionary tale, but as a requiem for what a wrenching process growing up and apart is for children and parents alike. The final images of the film seem to say that Jesse will always be struggling to reconnect with his family from the other side. And, well, of course he will.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Dark Skies was shot in HD with the ARRI Alexa, and Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release presents the film in a gleaming 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. The crystalline image is obviously absent of grain, though it's likewise free of noise or other digital aberrations, including compression artifacts. Dynamic range and colour reproduction are excellent--the movie's bluish blacks and slightly golden cast combine to stave off a certain SyFy Channel patina that manifests itself in so many digitally-shot genre features. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track provides a stellar platform for a mix that uses the discrete soundstage fancifully, while both the sound design and Joseph Bishara's largely experimental score work the lower registers like nothing since David Lynch. For what it's worth, I wouldn't recommend holding a drink or a piece of fine china during any of the set-pieces. Dialogue is hushed but never gets lost in the shuffle.
On another track, find Stewart, joined by producers Jason Blum and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and editor Peter Gvozdas, lording over a breathless full-length commentary devoted to process and, to a lesser extent, the subject of marriage. The yakker reveals that the film is part of a new production initiative to make horror movies on the cheap, within a Dogme 95-like set of parameters, for theatrical play. We learn it was originally conceived to be done found-footage-style, until Blum decided that classical storytelling might give Dark Skies a longer shelf life. (A producer on the Paranormal Activity franchise, Blum says he now knows from experience that in the long run found-footage creates more problems than it solves.) Gvozdas is gratifyingly prompted to discuss some of his unconventional editing choices, and of course there is the obligatory fawning over the ensemble. Thankfully, their praise is justified.
Rounding out the extras is a selection of SD deleted scenes, nine in total, with optional commentary from Stewart and, I think, Gvozdas. With the glaring exceptions of an elaborate dream sequence and the (silly) alternate ending, these are mostly heads or tails clipped from pre-existing scenes. Stewart acquits himself well here, saying, for instance, that they decided to lose a glimpse of branding on Lacy's body because it was too significant to not come up again. Oddly, then, in none of these elisions does a social worker pay a visit to the Barretts, who are suspected of abuse in the movie proper by both a neighbour lady and Jesse's doctor. Trailers for Scre4m, A Haunted House, The Lords of Salem, and 6 Souls cue up on startup of the disc, which comes packaged with DVD and Ultraviolet copies of Dark Skies.