Friday, March 1, 2013

Watch the Skis... I mean Skies!

As I sat down for the opening credits of Dark Skies, I wasn't sure what to expect. The Shyamalan-reminiscent alien abduction film wasn't exactly an anticipated release for me, but at the very least I figured I could enjoy a couple hours at the theater with some dark, supernatural fare in the same vein as last year's Sinister. Then words popped up on the screen that immediately altered all of my ideas on what to expect: "Directed by Scott Stewart."

Well, crap.

Longtime readers and/or movie buffs might remember that Stewart is a horrible filmmaker. In 2010, the visual effects specialist made his directorial debut with Legion, about fallen angels and the end of the world. In 2011 he brought us Priest, about a post-apocalyptic vampire-riddled western future. While it shouldn't be wrong for me to believe that either of these would be awesome, I was pained both times by horrible storytelling, an over-reliance on special effects and atrocious pacing. Legion was the worst movie of 2010, and Priest wasn't much better at eighth worst the next year. I'm still not sure why anybody keeps giving him money to make movies, but the knowledge that he was behind the movie I was about to see made me shrink at the idea of what I was about to behold.

Just a couple of normal victims...
The Barretts are a typical suburban family of four; parents Lacey and Daniel (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton), and sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sammy (Kadan Rocket). While they struggle through everyday problems (Daniel's unemployed status, Jesse's girl problems), they are largely a happy and healthy family unit. But strange things start to happen around the Barrett residence, including apparent break-ins and items disappearing, neither police nor security consultants can identify what is going on, or how. When Lacey begins to discover clues of a potential supernatural origin, however, evidence suggests that they are the targets of alien beings. As more and more happens, begins to worry that one of them will be taken away forever.

"We have to talk about your school assignment..."
If there's one thing surprising about Dark Skies, it's that Stewart actually succeeded in putting together a creepy movie. The more sci-fi elements of the story are tense and effective, cackling with energy and utterly unpredictable. You're completely unsure what will happen next, and when shocking things happen you either won't be able to take your eyes off the screen or will turn away shrieking. It may not have the constant tension of horror thrillers like Sinister or Insidious, but when it does try to be scary, it usually succeeds. Very reminiscent of early Shyamalan, clues are left out in the open for the audience to find, but they aren't exclusively told that they ARE clues. Its almost as if the director didn't want to play his entire hand in the first fifteen minutes and actually decided to PACE the movie.

"No, go ahead, I'm listening..."
Unfortunately, while Shyamalan eventually got predictable the more movies he made, so does Stewart return to poor form by the end of this movie. First there's the unevenness in casting. Keri Russell can be a talented actress, as we've seen in movies like Waitress. J.K. Simmons is ALWAYS a strong performer, no matter the medium. And both Josh Hamilton (pretty much an unknown theater actor) and Dakota Goyo (Real Steel) prove themselves given a chance to step up. But none of them is consistently used (especially Simmons, who pretty much gets a cameo), and they're all usurped by the annoyance of Kadan Rockett, who is the focus of FAR too much of the movie for a kid who can only do one thing well (and he only does it once). It's almost as if Stewart showed Rockett a clip of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and then told him to do the worst emulation possible. It's ridiculous when you have to consider how many kids are probably being auditioned in Hollywood, and THIS was the kid they settled on.

I hate you; please be abducted by aliens.
But Dark Skies' biggest failing is that there's too much that I simply don't care about. What is the purpose of the sub-story of Daniel finding a job? Or Jesse kissing a girl for the first time? Stewart wasn't sure what to put into this story, so he just decided to throw it ALL in. I get that he wanted to show a normal suburban life through the Barretts and how that could not only be destroyed but appear perfectly normal, but including all this stuff seriously hampers the story by bogging it down in so much nonsense. The dialogue is patchy as well, and even the good actors have a difficult time making any decent headway with it. Obviously Stewart needs to stop writing his own screenplays and focus on his visuals, obviously his main strength. Other than that, there's not much here to like.

Spooky. But not great.
Dark Skies is Scott Stewart's best film thus far. However, that's really not saying all that much, as it's still one of the early year's lesser titles. I have to wonder which will come first: Stewart's maturation as an artist, or studios' and audiences' impatience with his final product. This is at least a step in the right direction, but it's going to take a dramatic shift for me to start taking this guy seriously. In the meantime, we all suffer.


Richard J. Marcej said...

Am I reading too much into it, or is the title for your review a play on a quote from "The Simpsons". The X-Files-esque episode where the squeaky-voiced teen takes over the narration from Nimoy and says:" Good night, and keep watching the skis. "

Mr. Anderson said...

Thank you for catching that! That's one of my favorite all-time quotes from the show. Any time Nimoy showed up was classic.