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Rated 2.97 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Sci-Fi Thriller Breaks from the Norm
by Frank Wilkins

What if, rather than via an all-out, full-frontal global assault with phasers blasting, aliens invaded Earth quietly instead, one family at a time? And what if their intention was something far less materially destructive than the total annihilation of our planet to harvest its natural resources or utilize it as some interplanetary way station? That’s the premise Scott Stewart toys around with in Dark Skies, his alien abduction thriller that, in spite of its myriad pacing problems and logic inconsistencies, still manages to register a fairly big blip on the creep-out meter.

Despite his background as a visual effects artist, Stewart abandons his familiar physical stylizations to work the fringes of the psychological by deploying this truism of scary movies: it’s always what you don’t see that is the scariest. And in the case of the oddly titled Dark Skies, what we don’t see is what creates the chaos in the lives of the Barretts, a seemingly typical suburban family experiencing a series of abnormal occurrences.

Struggling through rough times, realtor mom Lacy (Keri Russell) and unemployed architect dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) focus their main interests on hiding from others just how deep a hole they’re in. Older son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is the typical teen going through the trials of growing up, while younger brother Sam (Kadan Rockett) grapples to make sense of the nightmares he’s having that involve the “Sandman” who steals children’s eyes to feed his own progeny. Yes, it's another of those films where only the kid sees the evil and even draws it in crayon for the adults to see.

We soon learn that their economic struggles are the least of their worries, as an unseen force begins disrupting their lives by rearranging furniture, stacking pantry items in intricate formations, and otherwise causing seemingly harmless chaos in their routine.

After receiving no help from the local police, who brush off the mischief as simple pranks by the family’s children, further investigation leads Lacy and Daniel to believe the source of the madness to be extraterrestrial in nature. When an online paranormal expert (J.K. Simmons) whose drab apartment walls are covered with Area 51-type illustrations and photographs, suggests their escalation of nosebleeds, facial cuts, blackouts, and suicidal flocks of birds are cause for alarm, the Barretts realize that protection can only come from themselves.

There’s a nice little sense of doom and gloom that escalates throughout a significant portion of the film’s first half, as if we’re heading to a grand climax or some unexpected twist of fate. Though neither ever comes, (well, there is a bit of a twist, but it isn’t as effective as hoped for) there’s enough creepy atmosphere and disturbing affectation to keep us pinned to our seats despite an almost overwhelming familiarity of borrowed imagery from such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Signs, and of course the godfather of all thinly plotted spook shows, Paranormal Activity. There’s a reason why the Paranormal films continue to roll in the dough despite four episodes of basically the same thing. It’s because scanning back through recorded surveillance footage to spot a ghostly apparition is still an extremely effective scare tactic. And Stewart uses it to maximum effect in Dark Skies.

Stewart’s central message -- which is formed from the notion that common suburban stress and anxiety come from the presence of alien beings intent on creating chaos in the world from inside our minds -- almost gets buried in an onslaught of half-baked ideas, dangling allegories, and borrowed references. But several genuinely startling scares -- most of them heightened by what we don’t see, or what happens just off screen -- coupled with his newfound visual restraint, are enough to make Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies slightly better than mediocre sci-fi fare. It’s certainly not as profound as sci-fi writer Archur C. Clarke’s quote that opens the film, but as a genre film that doesn’t attempt to bite off more that it can chew, it’s a much needed break from the norm.

(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)

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