'Dark Skies': An unexpected and intriguing horror-fest
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Dark Skies" embodies an odd kind of cinematic paradox. This horror/sci-fi picture is undeniably derivative; in the age of high-concept (which I guess never really went away), the pitch for it might be "'Poltergeist' meets 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'" Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton play a relatively average suburban couple dealing with financial difficulties and child-rearing challenges, all of which are exacerbated when mysterious home invaders start raiding the fridge and putting up what look like space-age art installations in their kitchen and living room. And soon worse, and scarier, starts happening.
And it wasn't as if Daniel and Lacy Barrett, Hamilton and Russell's characters, didn't have enough to worry about. Money issues, job issues, their older pre-teen boy Jesse (Dakota Goyo) hanging out with an icky older boy, that sort of thing. First what looks like a stray animal episode messes up their kitchen, and then odder, more aggressive overnight incidents, one of which leaves the many picture frames in their living room bereft of their family photographs, occur. Skeptical cops and security experts suspect the kids, while youngest child Sam (Kadan Rockett) speaks reluctantly of nighttime visits from a "sandman" who knows what's going on and has instructed Sam not to tell.
The de-rigueur-for-the-genre installment of multiple video cameras in the house follows, but to writer/director Scott Stewart's credit, he doesn't let this development serve as an excuse to have "Dark Skies" devolve into a found-footage piece of hackwork. He keeps the odd domestic scares (including a really unnerving scene of hundreds of birds slamming into the hapless family's house in mid-afternoon) percolating, and when both kids start getting marked up by the poky alien guests (according to an E.T. truther the couple consults in desperation, the invasion has already happened, humanity is nothing but a bunch of lab rats to the invaders, and the Barretts have just had the bad luck of the draw), the reaction from the very-proper friends and neighbors of their suburban community is less than understanding. It isn't long before both the parents go into something resembling full panic mode, and the confused kids are similarly flummoxed.
The solution to the problem? There is none, according to the character played by J.K. Simmons. His explainer is a genre relative of Zelda Rubinstein's ghostbuster in the 1982 "Poltergeist," but unlike Tangina, his Edwin Pollard doesn't bring much in the way of good news. He says the best the family can do is present the most united and defiant front possible, and even that isn't likely to move the E.T.s into not abducting one of their number. The movie's climax offers a large share or...well, not quite surprises. But it is rather more unexpected and intriguing than the way narratives of this sort tend to end these days. Add to that the committed performance from the cast, the largely effective special effects, and the overall intelligence of the movie, and you haven't quite got an earth=shaker, but definitely a decent scarifying effort that doesn't abjure convention entirely but goes out on a few gratifying limbs.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.