Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Movie Review: Dark Skies

Dark Skies
Directed by: Scott Stewart.
Written by: Scott Stewart.
Starring: Keri Russell (Lacy Barrett), Josh Hamilton (Daniel Barrett), Dakota Goyo (Jesse Barrett), Kadan Rockett (Sam Barrett), J.K. Simmons (Edwin Pollard), L.J. Benet (Kevin Ratner), Rich Hutchman (Mike Jessop), Myndy Crist (Karen Jessop), Annie Thurman (Shelly Jessop), Jake Brennan (Bobby Jessop), Ron Ostrow (Richard Klein).

When I reviewed the horror film Mama recently I said this: “The problem with Mama is pretty much from beginning to end, the audience knows what the big secret of the movie is going to be – and we just have to wait for the main character to catch up to us. So while Mama is much better made and acted than your run of the mill horror film, it’s just as brainless.” I quote this at length, because it fits pretty much perfectly to Dark Skies as well. You cannot name a movie Dark Skies and start the movie with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke and expect the audience NOT to guess your movie’s big surprise. Like Mama, Dark Skies is a very well made horror movie – but it doesn’t quite have the advantage of Jessica Chastain in the lead role. Keri Russell is fine – but nothing more.

The movie is about the Barrett family – a typical suburban family, who like everyone else is experiencing money problems. Lacy (Russell) is a real estate agent trying to make money on commissions, but doesn’t have the houses to do so, and Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has been out of work for a few months now. Soon though, they’ll wish money problems are all they’ll have. The Barrett’s have two sons – Jesse (Dakota Goyo), on the cusp of being a teenager, and all the confusion that comes along with that, and Sam (Kadan Rockett), a few years younger, who still thinks he sees the sandman – and blames him when he does things wrong. The Barrett’s think this is just a phase – if only that were true.

Of course, strange things start to happen – break-ins to their house, that aren’t really break-ins. Despite a new alarm system, and Daniel’s installation of Paranormal Activity like camera equipment, strange things keep happening – so Lacy, of course, hits the internet and, of course, comes back with a bunch of conspiracy theories that Daniel, of course, thinks are ridiculous but, of course, turn out to be all too true. You get the idea. And without Mulder and Scully to help them the Barrett’s are basically screwed.

Like Mama, the central problem with Dark Skies is that the movie holds no real surprises for the audience. From the opening moments, you know (or should) precisely where this movie is going – and spend the first hour (of a movie barely 90 minutes long) frustrated because the characters take so much more time than you did to figure it all out. Good horror movies need to provide you with a plausible alternate theory – something that makes you go back and forth in your mind trying to piece things together. But from the beginning, there is only one thing that could be causing the problem in Dark Skies.

The film was written and directed by Scott Stewart – and I guess it’s a step forward from his first two features – Legion (2009) and Priest (2011), two horror/action movies that inexplicably tried to turn Paul Bettany into an action hero (it didn’t work). Here, the action is less frantic, the characters more believable, the atmosphere creepier, and more believable. He shows more skill behind the camera this time than in the previous two films. But his screenplay is what ultimately undoes him – it’s hard to get too involved with a movie that depends so much on shocking the audience, when you figure out all the surprises before the characters do – and if there was ever movie that did not require one of those flashback montages that explain the twist, this would be that movie – but it’s there just the same.

Dark Skies certainly isn’t an awful movie. It is well made, and the performances are as good as can be expected given what they to work with – and I did quite enjoy J.K. Simmons in his one scene cameo is a crazy guy who isn’t so crazy after all. But it is a rather pointless one. You have to do something to scare the audience – and Dark Skies gives the game away before the first scene in the movie.

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