Starting with a rolling, sunny montage of the idyllic, American suburb, you might think for a second that there might be some subliminal channeling of cinematic classics such as Blue Velvet in alien horror thriller Dark Skies. No such luck, but despite a traditional approach for the most part, Dark Skies remains engaging throughout.
Starting off with a very familiar set-up; a middle-class family of four lives what seems to be a carefree life in an anonymous suburb. However, as fate and the screen writer would have it, not all is what it seems. Under the well-off surface image, the parents struggle to make ends meet, and at the same time the youngest son starts experiencing nightmarish visions of a visitor who wants to take him away. Cue a succession of eerie events unsettling the family, until eventually their whole life has been turned upside down in a desperate bid to stave off malevolent alien abductors.
Some of the early setup scenes are silently eerie and mostly effective. As the family’s questions are dismissed by authorities, the parents get embroiled in the visions and happenings. While Josh Hamilton and Keri Russell‘s Daniel and Lacy are pretty much by-the-numbers characters, it’s the kids who are more engaging, for once. Dakota Goyo and Kadan Rockett play brothers Jesse and Sam, who endearingly call each other Command Control and Lunar Base, and regularly communicate via walkie-talkie.
Seeing tolerable, let alone engaging, kid characters in horror films is rare. What makes it work here is director Scott Stewart’s wise decision to play things down in almost every aspect of the film. Rockett’s performance is especially effective, as there is not a hint of the perennially overused and annoying kid hysteria. Another wise casting is J.K. Simmons as alien specialist Edwin. Instead of a crazed conspiracy theorist, Simmons gives us a weathered, tired and quietly reflective. It’s not often that you see an “alien specialist” pick up a questionnaire and justify it with the line “it helps weed out the lunatics” and remain thoroughly serious and believable at the same time. And while Russell’s Lacy might be two-dimensional, she does pained and desperate well enough for it not to become annoying.
When it comes to the action, things are similarly subdued. Among the most effective sequences is the startling first sighting and a chilling bird scene. The sound design and editing is the film’s strongest part, with eerie and disturbing effects throughout. There is some shocking imagery as well, especially in the handful of ghostly dream sequences.
However, the downplayed, more performative approach becomes a hindrance in the third act, when echoes of Signs and a sluggishly executed late twist let the build-up down a bit. It’s all made up for with an absolutely brilliant and chilling final shot, though.
Final Verdict: Alien abduction horror Dark Skies is more of a chiller than a thriller, but is interesting throughout, even though it’s only intermittently scary. Among the surprises are strong performances from the child actors and a downplayed, character-based approach to the plot. Third act struggles are capped off with a great ending, so the resulting impression is a quietly effective horror film worth checking out.