Back in the 1980s, a friend of mine - writing for an alternative weekly - attended a conference for people who believed they’d been abducted by aliens. He thought he might get a funny story out of it, but he came away from the conference with something entirely unexpected: A belief in these people’s belief that they’d been abducted - their conviction, and the pain of it, was that strong. Aliens may not be real, but these people’s suffering was.
"Dark Skies," the latest alien-invasion picture in town, wasn’t screened for critics, leading every smarty-pants out there to automatically ascertain, sight unseen, that it must be terrible. But the picture, in addition to being extremely well-crafted, has more than a few brushstrokes of the melancholy my friend saw in those conference attendees. It’s a sign of intelligent life, even if it’s being beamed out to movie audiences who have become conditioned into skepticism.
A comfortably suburban mom and dad, played by Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton, suddenly notice strange things happening in and around their house. Birds, lots of them, begin violently crashing into it one day, leaving bloody splotches all over the previously pristine windows and clapboard before falling to the ground with a thud. Dad starts getting weird rashes and gushing nosebleeds. Mom, a real estate agent, suffers a mini-breakdown while showing a house and awakens six hours later, unable to remember any of it.
The younger of the couple’s two sons (Kadan Rockett), who looks to be around six, begins having strange dreams in which a faux-friendly presence visits and tells him creepy things. The older son (Dakota Goyo) seems somewhat immune to all these mysterious goings-on, but that may be because he’s preoccupied: He’s just at the age where he’s noticing girls, and the soft-core porn he watches while visiting the house of a slightly older pal has put some confused romantic ideas into his head involving a neighborhood cutie (Annie Thurman, who looks a little like a junior-miss Emma Stone).
You’ve seen the basic plot elements of "Dark Skies" 1,000 times, maybe even 1,001 times. But clearly, so has writer-director Scott Stewart (he’s been working in the field of visual effects for years, and he previously directed two fantasy-horror features, “Priest” and “Legion,” both starring Paul Bettany.) “Dark Skies” is packed with homages, both obvious and sly, to movies like “Poltergeist,” “The Birds,” the “Paranormal Activity” franchise and more, but it may owe its biggest debt to quasi-political horror pictures of the 1980s like Joseph Ruben’s dream-family nightmare, "The Stepfather."
In "Dark Skies," not all of the family’s natural enemies are coming from outside the house. Hamilton, an architect, has been out of work for a while, and though Russell is clearly trying to be supportive, you can see that the situation has put strain on the family. And Goyo is at that stage where he’s at war with his own body: He’s moody one minute and euphoric the next, particularly after a romantic encounter with that neighborhood girl – it’s just past twilight, and he soars home on his bike as the strains of some jangly indie-pop love song fill his ears, and ours.
But the closer he gets to the family home, the more enveloped he is by darkness, pretty much literally. There’s some clever, effective filmmaking in "Dark Skies": When Hamilton rigs up six security cameras, enough to cover every room in the house, he sits before a monitor that’s divided, effectively, into six screens – we can see everything going on in each room simultaneously, except when we can’t (it’s like something De Palma would come up with if he had six eyes instead of two). Stewart cuts away just when you think you’re about to see something terrible, and he lets the camera linger even as we’re straining to get a glimpse of the whatever-it-izzes that have chosen this particular household as their own personal petri dish.
"Dark Skies" is sort of supernatural, but it’s really more super natural: This isn’t your stock “dark underbelly of suburbia” tract. Nor is it about the sanctity of the family, a cheerleadery statement about a clan’s ability to survive anything by sticking together (though you may think that’s where the movie is headed in a scene featuring the wonderful J.K. Simmons, in a small role as an alien specialist and crazy cat-daddy). If anything, "Dark Skies" is about the fragility of family, a muted meditation on how precious it is. Stewart doesn’t even go for the easy ending, maybe because in families, there are no endings, as long as there are people left to remember those who have gone before. "Dark Skies" doesn’t make a case for the existence of aliens, but it does affirm that genre filmmakers who work with their eyes, their hearts and their brains still walk among us. Believe it, even if people laugh at you.