“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
~ Arthur C. Clarke
With that quote commences Dark Skies, a film that fails to add a very important follow-up statement: that only one of these possibilities is marketable. Aliens attacking a suburban family, standing in for all the outside forces that threaten to rip any real family unit apart? That’s a sci-fi thriller. Aliens don’t exist? That’s merely life.
But there’s a reason why Dark Skies begins with this quote, and it's not because aliens don’t exist in Scott Stewart’s latest thriller. They abound in both creepy ways and ways eerily and frustratingly reminiscent of Signs and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But to the outside observer, the perceived plight of the Hamilton family is equally unsettling: a family overrun by madness, abuse and instability. The truth is so shocking that they would never believe it. The outward appearance is just shocking enough that they do. That’s why Dark Skies works as well as it does despite its familiarity. It filters the fantastic through the mundane, and finds horror on both sides of the sieve.
Lacey and Daniel Barrett are keeping their family together through hard times. As played by Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton, they are vulnerable internally and externally, and committed to their relationship despite sexual dissatisfaction and economic woes of the normal skein. Their sons, Jesse and Sam, are relatively normal kids at entirely different stages of development. Jesse, played by Dakota Goyo, is discovering girls, watching porn in secret with his male friends and staying strong for his little brother while Mom and Dad argue through the night. Sam, played by Kadan Rockett (which is an awesome name), is impressionable and young enough to believe that those arguments herald inevitable divorce, and that the “Sandman” who speaks to him in the night is real. And of course he is. Because this is a movie, and there are aliens.
The mysterious noises in the night, the inexplicable goings on in the kitchen, and the vanishing of a lifetime’s worth of family photos are all upsetting to the Barretts, and their repeated blackouts and nosebleeds are certainly cause for alarm. Still, they go to sleep in the same beds every night, and rationalize their fears away by focusing on their individual hang-ups and practical concerns. It’s easy to say, “Sam needs to go to a psychiatrist” when you can pay for it. That the Barretts claim they cannot do so and yet still find the means to install 24-hour security cameras around the whole house makes Dark Skies somewhat less of a movie, but maybe that’s the real point: the family is endangered, either by aliens or the typical societal concerns that would threaten them regardless, and rather than deal with them directly, Lacey and Daniel stay focused on avoiding them altogether or puttering around the house, or at least seeking some kind of scapegoat for problems they should have been on top of to begin with.
By the time the horror becomes unavoidable, reason has taken a back seat, and the whole Barrett family resorts to measures that would label them as loons in any modern context. Yet their focus is finally where it needs to be: on the family, on their security, and on the safety of their children and each other. It’s no coincidence that their final confrontation with the alien menace comes shortly after they finally get a dog. Traditional family values are finally met, their priorities are finally straight, and it’s time to face their problems head on even though it’s actually far too late to do so effectively. The damage is done, and their negligence has taken its toll in a literal and metaphoric state.
There are also lots of “boo” scares with aliens in Dark Skies, but that seems a little incidental. Dark Skies is an allegory first and a horror movie second, and the severe lack of emphasis on old-fashioned terror seems to support that theory. It’s not terribly scary, aside from a jump here or there, but it raises genuine anxieties about life in general and has a moral that’s hard to argue with. Perhaps it’s an obvious moral, but at least Stewart’s smart screenplay and direction supports it. It’s a creepy film, whose creeps emanate from empathy rather than clichéd threats from beyond the stars. I respect it for that. I could have been more entertained, but I respect it.