The economic crisis and the paranormal make for a devastate a suburban family in Dark Skies, a frequently chilling but inconsistent bit of alien conspiracy schlock from writer/director Scott Stewart. If you recognize his name at all it's probably not for a good reason. He's primarily responsible for inflicting a one-two punch of terrible Paul Bettany action flicks on us, Priest and Legion. He's done perhaps his best work here, creating a real sense of panic and urgency strong enough to forgive the occasional dry spells.
Stewart borrows liberally from two schools of horror: the classic Poltergeist/Close Encounters era and the more current Paranormal Activity films to craft a horror that somewhat resembles an episode of The Twilight Zone. One of those modern incarnations, not the Rod Serling version. The lovely Keri Russell and the milquetoast Josh Hamilton are Lacy and Daniel Barrett, a suburban family who already have enough on their plate without the threat of E.T. coming to harass them. He's unemployed, and she's a real estate agent in a struggling economy. The stress is ripping them apart, and making life difficult for their two sons.
In many horrors, this aspect of their life would be little more than time filler, but it actually plays a crucial role and informs much of what unfolds throughout. Both parents are harboring secrets, small ones that only get bigger over time. He's not being honest about how his job search is going, which is to say disastrously. She's quietly harboring resentment over his unemployment and growing anger, which he takes out on their son's best friend, a trouble-making simpleton. When weird things start to happen around the house, such as food mysteriously spilled on the floor and strange symbols appearing on the ceiling, they don't trust one another enough to be completely honest about it.
Their kids have it worse. Their youngest son, Sam, thinks his eyes are going to be stolen by something he calls the Sandman. His parents think the Sandman is a fiction of his overactive imagination. They'll feel differently soon enough. 15-year old Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is just starting to experiment with drugs and girls, never a good combination at any age. There are sweet, Spielberg-ian moments between the two boys, calming one another's fears over walkie-talkies at night.
The situation escalates out of control quickly. Flocks of birds crash into their home as if drawn by a magnet, leaving nasty bloody smears all over the place. It's like a Hitchcock wet dream. The family begins to slip into catatonic states that happen at the most inopportune times. Both sons have strange bruises all over their body that draw the suspicion of the neighbors. Taking a page out of Paranormal Activity (it's produced by the same people); they install surveillance cameras which confirm the worst. They seem resigned to their fate when an alien expert (J.K. Simmons) seems to understand all too well what they are going through. He's also completely given up any hope of stopping the alien abductions. “The invasion already happened. They’re here.”
The film is awash in idyllic images of suburban Americana: cook outs, fireworks, American flags, and kids riding their bicycles. Stewart is clearly making some sort of point about the economic collapse and the devastation of a certain American ideal, but he doesn't go far enough tying it into the larger whole. It works on a smaller level, mostly thanks to Keri Russell's strong performance as a woman dealing with the terror, shock, and embarrassment of her predicament. She's far and away better than the overmatched Hamilton, who misplays nearly every scene.
This is theater of the mind, and Stewart ramps up the tension effectively with some clever and inspired camerawork. Playing with our field of vision, he allows our imaginations to take over and conjure up the worst. The aliens themselves look like something out of Signs, which is to say they're more shocking than scary. From the family's various outside pursuits to the constant parental squabbling, the film juggles a lot of balls in the air that don't quite pan out. In particular we're not made to feel much of anything for Daniel, and his concern for his kids rings hollow. That could be a product of Hamilton's poor acting, though.
The finale crescendos in a throng of bright lights, firecrackers, and shotgun blasts as the Barretts settle in for a last stand against the otherworldly threat. It deserved a more subtle conclusion than the noisy barrage we were treated to. Dark Skies won't totally scratch that itch for a good scare, but it's a welcome treat for those who follow the old X-Files credo, "The truth is out there".