Welcome back to We Can Fix It, where we take a look back at movies (and sometimes just movie-related stuff) that sucked and not only point out what went wrong, where most critics stop, but try to figure out how it could have gone right. Too little, too late? Perhaps, but since they don’t screen movies for film critics before they’re finished, every time we write about a bad movie it just comes across as sour grapes. We’re here to help, people. Film critics are knowledgeable (at least the good ones are) and, compared to the filmmakers, objective, but studios only seek our opinions after they’ve tried to fix the problems themselves. Is it the plumber’s fault that you only called them after your leaky faucet flooded the bathroom?
This week we take a look at the 2010 sci-fi disappointment Skyline, a low-budget movie with big-budget aspirations and a marketing push to match. The alien invasion film was shot on a $500,000 budget, with a $10 million budget for the special effects after principle production. That’s peanuts, folks. The Help cost $25 million to produce, and that hardly has any aliens in it. Skyline was directed by The Brothers Strause: Greg and Colin. They’re visual effects gurus who contributed to such blockbusters as Avatar, Iron Man 2 and Battle: Los Angeles. So they knew a lot about how to get extra bang for their buck.
What they didn’t know, apparently, was how to tell an interesting story. The Brothers Strause’s first feature, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, was a bad enough movie that we’ll probably get to it on We Can Fix It in the near future. Skyline isn’t much better. Just like many actors who move behind the camera tend to produce acting showcases (Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and Zach Braff’s Garden State come readily to mind, but there are many others), these two visual effects gurus have thus far produced visual effects showcases that fall short in the acting and story departments. The result was box office malaise and sound critical drubbings (AVPR earned a 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, Skyline earned 16% with an only 19% audience approval rating). Skyline also earned barely $21 million domestically, although the $65 million worldwide take probably does guarantee a sequel, given the low, low production budget.
Since then the film has earned a speedy reputation as, well… a piece of crap. Word of mouth has profoundly negative, and I’ve personally heard at least one “Worst Movie Ever” proclamation for an enthused non-fan. But while we’re not exactly leaping to Skyline’s defense – it’s bad enough to warrant an edition of We Can Fix It, obviously – it’s hardly Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Beyond the impressive special effects the film boasts some nifty alien invasion ideas (their motivation is to steal human brains, which is both novel and creepy), an intriguing genre mix of blockbusters and zombie movies (which we’ll explore in a minute), nifty creature designs and a few memorable set pieces.
Unfortunately, it does not boast focused storytelling, interesting characters, or an ending. Skyline is a bit of a mess, albeit hardly an unwatchable one, but it has so many good things going for it that we couldn’t help but come up with five suggestions for how it could have been made into a truly memorable, if minor, sci-fi classic. What did we come up with? Check it out…
1. PICK A GENRE
Lots of great movies are genre mash-ups. Big Trouble in Little China combined the 1980’s white male power fantasy genre with the Chinese martial arts fantasy genre. Kill Bill combined martial arts, westerns, Gialli, yakuza films and a whole lot more. Skyline combines big budget alien invasion blockbusters with, essentially, low-budget zombie films. A group of characters are trapped in a fortified position with an unstoppable force outside ready to kill them, in this case an alien invasion. One of the heroes is infected by the enemy but hides it from the group. The infighting between them proves just as dangerous as the external threat. And so on. It’s a neat idea that The Brothers Strause don’t seem capable of pulling off effectively, because damn it, there’s special effects to show off.
The low-budget zombie element seems to be the real novelty here, so we’d choose to emphasize that. Granted, the cast and in particular the screenplay aren’t quite strong enough to make these scenes play any better than an average SyFy Channel Original Movie, but the premise is sound. By beefing up the characters (which will get its own segment in a minute) and making their struggles more meaningful, the parts of the film that seem mundane in the current version could be made into suspenseful centerpieces. As it stands, the special effects scenes are often so much better than the bulk of the film that the supposedly involving plot points are frustratingly distracting from the action… which isn’t the point of the story, although it sure feels like the point of the film. Look at the trailer on the previous page, and note which of these genre elements the marketing department thought was important. Now compare it to the actual content of the film, and despair.
Repeatedly The Brothers Strause leave the confines of the heroes’ hiding place to put the audience right in the middle of badass aerial dogfights. They look cool, and the music swells to tell us that the pilots’ struggle is dramatically important, but we don’t care about them because we don’t know who’s involved. If the pilots were characters we might have given a damn, but they’re not, and instead these impressively shot action sequences distract from the plot, which in turn feels like a distraction from the action sequences, and down we spiral deep into the drain.
Obviously The Brothers Strause didn’t have the budget to actually tell the story of fighter pilots or anyone else in the military dealing off the alien invasion. They could afford an apartment, so that’s what they shot. So shifting the emphasis was a mistake. Besides, the zombie storyline would have been better served by forcing the audience to watch the incredible action from a distance, just like the helpless protagonists. It wouldn’t have been badass because we’re right in the middle of the action, it would have been badass because it put us right in the heads of a group of characters whose salvation is completely out of their own hands. That could have been amazing, and we would have done that instead.
2. FIGURE OUT WHO THE CHARACTERS ARE
We got through the entire running time of Skyline – a paltry 94 minutes, although sadly it felt a lot longer – without ever caring whether the heroes lived or died. Regardless of genre, that’s a serious problem. We could go through each individual character and offer specific suggestions, but it all boils down to one question: what do they have to live for?
No one (rational) wants to die. Sure there are specific exceptions, mostly involving sacrificing yourself to save the planet or something equally implausible, but there’s a difference between not wanting to die and wanting to really live. The audience doesn’t understand the cast of Skyline’s real desires. The script by Joshua Cordes and Liam O’Donnell (themselves visual effects artists) doesn’t give us much to work with. The heroes are too busy squabbling amongst themselves about pointless love triangles and “should we have this baby” storylines to give us any real insight as to who they are.
Terry, played by Scrubs star Donald Faison, is the most obvious example. He’s a capable actor, but his character is never adequately introduced. He’s first mentioned while Eric Balfour and his girlfriend, played by Scottie Thompson, are en route to Southern California. Balfour mentions that they’re visiting Faison, who is now rich and successful, and that they used to be in a musical act together. So we assume Faison is now a famous musician. When we actually meet Faison, he’s on the phone talking about a fighting robot sequence that needs to be finished. So he’s a big famous director instead, apparently. But we gradually learn, through indirect language, that he’s a visual effects artist (write what you know, folks), but everyone knows who he is. So he’s a famous visual effects artist? Who is this guy?
Dexter’s David Zayas, himself an excellent actor, plays a porter who winds up saving the lives of rich tenants who looked down on him. Good irony there, but who the hell is he? He never mentions family, friends or anything else besides the alien invasion that might be important to him. We don’t know what he wants to live for. We don’t know whatanyone wants to live for, and as a result their deaths are meaningless. Hell, their lives are meaningless. Why are we supposed to care about these people for 94 minutes?
Other character problems abound as well, like their profound lack of logical reasoning. Granted they’re all in shock because aliens have invaded, but their thought processes still need to be understandable. For instance, there’s a moment towards the end of the film when the heroes need to cover the windows for fear of the aliens seeing them. Eric Balfour wants to make a break for it after the sheets covering the windows fall down. His rationale? “What happens when the rest of the blinds fall? We don’t have enough sheets!” Think about that for a second. Firstly, they did have enough sheets to cover the windows, they just needed to secure them better. Secondly, if they didn’t have enough sheets in their posh apartment, they could easily secure more from the hundreds of other apartments in the sky-rise complex. Come to think of it, how is that one sheet ruined anyway? If they fall over, just put them up again! Come to think of it, why are you arguing about bedsheets during an alien invasion?
Oh man, we could go on for pages, so let’s just move on now.
NEXT: The importance of knowing what the hell is going on, and why 'Skyline' needs a new beginning and a new ending...
3. MAKE YOURSELVES CLEAR
The Brothers Strause are otherwise capable directors who frequently fail to clarify key information. There’s a moment early in the film when Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson are arguing and Donald Faison’s assistant, played by Teen Wolf’s Crystal Reed, walks into the room and leaves through a different door. Shortly afterwards, Donald Faison walks in and, after a moment, leaves through the same door as Reed. Thompson wonders aloud if that’s what she and Balfour have to look forward to as a couple, forcing the audience to wonder what the hell just happened. Apparently we were supposed to infer that Faison and Reed are having an affair, but there’s nothing to support Thompson’s assumption. If we saw that the room Reed and Faison walked into was a bedroom, and if perhaps they were in the process of undressing en route, we would have understood the plot point. We didn’t, because the directors didn’t make themselves clear.
We’ve already discussed the lack of clarity in the characters above, but it’s worth revisiting here too. Balfour and Thompson begin the film on a plane to visit Faison, who gives them the star treatment. Classy apartment, fancy drinks, cool parties. They’re star struck, but we have to be told that. We don’t actually understand that this is a contrast to them. A brief scene of these two characters leaving their modest, cluttered home in their crappy car would sell to us that these are country mice in the big city, and would have given the first act a bit more drama by placing them out of their element in a way the audience can understand.
Obviously one exception to this is the aliens’ motivations, which are only vaguely revealed throughout the story, which attempts to capitalize on the suspense deriving from that mystery. But after about half an hour we never learn anything more about it. A lack of information can be a compelling way to begin a story, but failing to parcel it out as the film progresses gets very dull, very quickly. The story doesn’t move forward, especially once the heroes finally hunker down and commit to hiding for the bulk of the film. A lack of momentum is always a dramatic failing, but in a story about something as broad as an alien invasion it may be the biggest nail in the coffin. What’s worse, the filmmakers had the perfect opportunity to move that plotline at least a little bit forward and completely failed to capitalize on it.
You see, there’s a sudden influx of characters in the third act, when soldiers land on the roof of the building. Balfour tries to rendezvous with these men, who could be their saviors, but he never talks to them. Why not? This is the perfect opportunity to provide some much-needed exposition from folks who might have at least some idea of what’s really going on. Again, the mystery was intriguing at first, but without any forward momentum, of information at least, the plot quickly becomes blasé. When George Romero revealed the origin of the zombie epidemic in Night of the Living Dead, the information was such a relief that it didn’t matter that the actual exposition was dissatisfying on its own. A space virus? We’ll take it, because it feels like the plot is moving and we’re sufficiently involved with the characters and their plight for that to be enough.
In short, actually tell us the story, visually and otherwise. Don’t just hope that we’ll get the gist of it.
4. GET A NEW OPENING
Like many films with a relatively slow first act – especially ones that eventually ramp up the action – Skyline begins with a scene from later in the film and then flashes back to the events that led up to it. It’s not a clever trick, but it works very nicely when done correctly. One of the wrong ways is to use a scene from the very end of the film, so the entire plotline feels like a foregone conclusion, neutralizing tension (the Ed Burns thriller Confidence is a classic example of this phenomenon). Skyline doesn’t do that, so good for Skyline. But there’s another way to screw it up, which we actually don’t see very often, and that’s to use a scene from the middle of the movie that isn’t very interesting. That Skyline does.
The prologue begins with a mysterious blue light emanating from the windows of a posh apartment. Scottie Thompson gets up in the middle of the night and vomits – which means she’s pregnant, of course – and notices the strange illumination. Thompson and Balfour then hear screams from the other room, where a woman we never met before is screaming that a character we’ve also never seen has disappeared off-screen. Eric Balfour is then drawn to the blue light, which begins to have a physical, though painless, effect on his body. Credits roll: SKYLINE!
There’s a difference between “mysterious” and “vague.” With the exception of the pregnancy cliché, every single thing in this supposedly enthralling prologue is confusing. The characters aren’t introduced in even the most menial of ways, ways which would make them sympathetic figures, which prevents audience involvement. And the threat is impossible to understand. We don’t see “Guy #1” disappear, so we don’t fully understand that there’s an actual threat. The black smoke-like growth on Balfour’s skin is so alien that we don’t grasp what’s going on. What’s more, it doesn’t even seem like it hurts.
Physical pain is universal, unless you suffer from CIPA, obviously. A threat to your physical well-being isn’t very threatening when you can’t comprehend what’s supposedly going to happen to you. This is why professional torturers show their victims what their implements of sadism can do before they actually use them. (Thank you, 24.) That impending threat is thoroughly understood, and therefore suspenseful. Skyline is based on the notion that the blue light is an alien device to make human’s willingly and painlessly submit to their own abduction, so even if we understood what it was, the blue light would be meaningless as a device to build tension in a prologue. So we have to come up with something else.
Our solution: shoot a new opening sequence. The Brothers Strause clearly had the post-production budget to pull this off (and they’d even have extra if they followed our advice on underplaying some of the bigger action sequences). This time, start big. The bulk of the film will be told from the insular perspective of protagonists with a limited knowledge of the bigger picture, so build suspense by giving the audience a head start. Open with a real bang, by showing the aliens land, abducting large crowds by sucking them into the sky (an admittedly memorable image, used in almost all the publicity materials). Show how big the overall story is going to get, so when the film ends up being a smaller affair the tension is more palpable. We’ll know how hopeless the protagonists’ plight is before they do, making us sympathize with them when they’re introduced a few minutes later. And while they’re stuck in an apartment complex the audience will have an implicit understanding of the real gravity of the alien invasion, which is a bonus. There’s that clarity we were asking for again.
5. GET A REAL ENDING
Big honking SPOILERS in this section, since we’re going to be talking about the very last couple of scenes in the film. If you actually want to see Skyline fresh, which we suppose is possible, feel free to skip to the conclusion. But if you’ve seen Skyline, or don’t particularly care how it ends, then read on, MacDuff, because the last few minutes of the film are an enormous f***ing problem.
Towards the end of the film our two main protagonists, Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson, are finally out of options. Tired of running, and with nowhere to run anyway, they submit to the blue light and are dragged up into an enormous spaceship. They kiss as they fly upwards, in a nicely dramatized moment of hope meeting hopelessness. Then… Thompson wakes up in a slimy pit of hypnotized human bodies. Balfour’s body is dragged away, and his brain is tragically scooped out and placed inside a large alien body. We have heretofore inferred that the aliens are somehow using human brains as a kind of battery, so we suspect that this is the end for him. But then the alien begins to twitch and we realize that Balfour has somehow, probably motivated by his love for his girlfriend and their unborn child, managed to take over his host completely. He saves Thompson from certain death at the hands of another alien, and after a moment she makes the connection: it’s her boyfriend.
It is at this point that the audience is probably more involved in the story than ever before. The characters have come to the most fascinating part of their story. The protagonist has been placed in a fascinating and sad situation, but now has the power to actually take genuine action. What’s more, they’re inside the alien spaceship, at last giving the movie an opportunity to provide answers to its many questions, and take the fight to the invaders. You’re probably really excited to see the third act of Skyline, and that’s too bad, because it’s not the beginning of the third act. It’s the end of the whole movie.
Oh, screw you guys.
We’ve discussed this at Crave Online recently, the annoying tendency of movies with franchise potential to end with a cliffhanger rather than an actual ending. If The Brothers Strause want to leave room for more stories, that’s fine, but this particular ending sabotages the first film to a physically painful degree. It literally ends just when it’s getting good. With this kind of storytelling decision to their credit, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that next film from the same directors is going to be any better.
That being said, we get it: you didn’t have enough money to make that movie, but you do want to make it. So you make a smaller film as a prologue and a promise for something bigger for the sequel. Sounds reasonable. And maybe if the rest of the film had been better – say, perhaps by following our first four suggestions – this outrageous c***block would have been a thrilling cliffhanger to a movie that promises even more thrills. But Skyline wasn’t thrilling in the first place, and telling the audience that they could have watched something better from the same filmmakers right at the end is a kick to the groin with a steel-tipped boot.
Who knows? If they’d toned it down a bit over the bulk of the first film, like we suggested, they might have had the money to actually film a third act to their movie, which as it stands is almost pathetically incomplete. Skyline would have been a thoroughly satisfying cinematic experience that demanded a sequel because of its popularity, instead of just barely making enough money despite awful word of mouth to make it economically feasible. Maybe then people would be excited about the prospect of Skyline 2, instead of being surprised when they find out that it’s in the works.
Actually end your movie. This isn’t rocket surgery.
There it is: how to fix Skyline, a film with genuinely interesting ideas that just didn’t implement them in an engaging way. We hope this helps for Skyline 2, guys. We really do. It’s too late for Skyline, but maybe Skyline 2 will have the chance to really kick our collective asses the way the first one could have.
We’ll be back in two weeks with more We Can Fix It. That’s right, we’re going bi-weekly from here on out. Don’t act so shocked. Lots of people are bi-curious these days. If you have any suggestions for more movies to cover, please let us know and we’ll get to them as soon as we can.