Aliens Among Us

Strange stacks of dishes! Birds slamming into windows! Strange things happen in 'Dark Skies'

A little Internet research reveals that "the Greys," surprisingly, make up less than half of all the alien sightings in the U.S. Let's play devil's advocate and say all those sightings are real. What, then, are the other people seeing?

The Greys are the popularized version of alien visitors. They're the ones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the ones in those laughable alien autopsy photos supposedly from Roswell in 1947, and the culprits in the abduction tale of Betty and Barney Hill, whose wild claims in the 1960s kicked off the alien abduction craze. Draw an alien on a napkin and it's probably going to be a Grey—long, thin body; large, teardrop-shaped head; no ears, thin nostrils and big eyes—so you'd think they'd make up at least half of the unwanted alien visits.

In Dark Skies, a little Internet research convinces Lacy Barrett (Keri Russell) that her family is being targeted by the Greys. What's so special about her family, Lacy asks local ufologist Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons). Nothing at all, he tells her. The Greys have been experimenting with Earthlings for who-knows-how-long and who-knows-why.

The first thing she noticed was her house being broken into, but it seemed more like teenage pranks than something dangerous: Dishes stacked in odd towers, food spilled on the floor, photos swiped from their frames. But then 800 birds slammed into the windows and Lacy suspected something else might be at work here. Her youngest son (Kadan Rockett) talks about a character in his nightmares called the Sandman. Maybe the Sandman is some real thing, or maybe the kid did it and he's got some other issues. Lacy sees a school drawing of her son with a tall, dark stick figure and immediately concludes it to be the kind of aliens she's found online.

Meanwhile, Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is skeptical of his wife's beliefs. There must be some logical explanation instead of visitors from another planet. But if aliens do exist, and they have targeted other families in the same way before, then isn't that a logical explanation?

Dark Skies is paced like a throwback. You do see aliens, but only once you're convinced that, for the purposes of the story, they're what has to be behind everything. It's a good decision by writer-director Scott Stewart, whose career is not full of those, having previously directed the woeful Legion and Priest. He has chosen to build suspense instead of scares with quick resolutions, and it's the right way to go. It makes Lacy's beliefs more sustainable and Daniel's apprehension more credible. Stewart is in no hurry to lay all his cards on the table, giving Russell in particular a chance to work at developing her character.

The trouble is, Stewart spends a little too much time just building tension. At a certain point, he has to give a little more to the audience. In a movie that's barely an hour and a half long, we don't meet the Pollard character—the only one with any answers—until more than an hour has passed, and we don't have an actual conflict with the aliens until after that. If Stewart had compressed his first hour into 40 minutes and given us more payoff than we get, this could have been a terrific addition to the alien invasion movie canon (which is hurting for terrific additions at the moment).

Compounding the filmmaker's problems is that much of the tension he's building is generic. This could just as easily be a haunted house picture; he doesn't give Dark Skies a unique presence or position early enough that you truly care about the story. Every night in the Barrett household, there's a new mystery. Every morning, the Barretts are confused. But it really never leads anywhere on its own.

Russell is effective here, although Hamilton doesn't bring a lot to the party. Daniel has been unemployed for a while, so that's weighing heavily on his mind, but Hamilton keeps the character way too distant from, you know, something breaking into his house every night. Simmons, one of the most reliable spot performers in the business, is riveting for the few moments he's on screen, hidden behind what appears to be an outfit from Hunter Thompson's estate sale.

The Greys—in the little time they are seen—are pretty unspectacular CGI creations (you might actually prefer those fake autopsy photos). That seriously undercuts all the waiting required to reach the big reveal. Lay all the blame for where Dark Skies goes wrong at the doorstep of Scott Stewart, who had a really good vision of what this movie should be but just couldn't make all the pieces work the way they're supposed to.

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