There has been a growing trend of micro-budget genre flicks being produced outside the studio system with known cast and filmmakers. Instead of seeking independent distribution, distribution rights for these movies are sold to studios who cash in on the $1, $2 or $3 million investment with huge returns. The most recent strong example of this distribution model to come to mind is 'Insidious,' which will be getting a sequel later this year. 'Dark Skies' falls into this category as well. Made for a modest $3.5 million, it went on to earn $23.4 million worldwide. While I enjoyed the freshness of unrestricted 'Insidious,' I cannot say the same for 'Dark Skies.'
From the acquiring studio's viewpoint, the upsides to this model are the low-/no-risk investment and the high returns. For the filmmakers, it's the ability to make an original movie without boundaries or limits – but this is where 'Dark Skies' is crippled. Break down the story of any generic horror movie and you'll find the exact formula of 'Dark Skies,' only with a tiny twist - instead of containing the despair of a psycho killer or an unstoppable paranormal/demonic being, 'Dark Skies' contains those little gray men that Fox Mulder warned us about. By simply applying aliens to the ad lib of horror movie plots, you've got the entire screenplay of 'Dark Skies.'
The alien aspect was completely missing from trailers and advertisements, but if you're thinking, 'Dammit, Hickman! You just spoiled the alien plot!' then calm down. The movie itself opens with a title card talking about extraterrestrial life. In fact, the movie is titled "Dark Skies," so what did you expect? A storm movie? The decision to conceal the obvious plot was made by the folks in Weistein/Dimension's marketing department, as it's explained in a pre-credit and pre-title card quote at the very start of the movie.
The Barrett family has fallen on hard times. After being laid off, father Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has not been able to find a new job. Mother Lacy (Keri Russell) is trying to bring money into their household by working as a real estate agent, but the same bad market that caused Daniel's lay-off has made it very hard for Lacy to flip a home. With the overwhelming stress of financial stability looming over their heads, Daniel and Lacy haven't been able to give their children the attention that they need, let alone keep their marriage strong. Their older son, Jesse (played by that kid from 'Real Steel,' Dakota Goyo), only has one terrible influence for a friend. Together, the two 14-year-olds smoke pot and watch porn. Jesse's social skills are botched. For example, he and his future felon friend break into one of his mom's homes and invite the only two girls willing to join them. Jesse is so awkward and unaware that when one of the girls shows interest in him, he hits on her in the same way that one of his pornos start – he drops a ridiculous line and grabs her breast.
The younger son, Sam (Kadan Rockett – do you think that's a screen name his parents contrived?), isn't as far off the tracks as Jesse, but he's on his way there. Without much parental attention, he is basically raised by his older brother. After mom and dad put the two to bed, Jesse and Sam talk to one another in their own bedrooms over walkie-talkies. Jesse tells Sam disturbing scary stories that have an obvious impact on him – but that's not the only root of his problems.
Early into the movie, strange things start happening. Lacy wakes up in the middle of the night to find the fridge open, food spread all over the floor and the back yard door wide open. Lacy may believe that an intruder came into their seeking food, but anyone who has seen 'E.T.' recognizes exactly what's going on – an extra-terrestrial has been in this home.
Even stranger things continue to happen, but these preoccupied parents repeatedly ignore the signs that are right in front of them. Once something unexplainable is suspected, Daniel and Lacy take turns studying the creepy events, but never function as one, as a team. She starts researching local alien experts, he goes all 'Paranormal Activity' on the situation by mounting closed-circuit cameras and obsessing over the captured footage. No matter what they do or where their findings take them, 'Dark Skies' stays on the tracks laid by countless other generic and formulaic horror movies that came before. Aside from one scene of cool imagery – which you already know if you've seen a single preview – absolutely everything else is a remix of something you've already seen before. In many cases, those things weren't even worthwhile the first, second, third or fourth time you saw them and much less entertaining now.
I'll continue rooting for little films that excel in creativity due to the freedom of independent filmmaking, but 'Dark Skies' doesn't even make an effort.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
It's obvious that The Weinstein Company/Dimension/Anchor Bay doesn't give a damn about 'Dark Skies' because it has been placed the movie on a Region A BD-25. Included in the standard blue Elite keepcase is a DVD, an Ultraviolet code and $2-off coupons for Blu-rays 'The Dead,' 'The Divide,' 'The Crazies (2010)' and 'Scream 4.' Upon inserting the disc, you're forced to watch Anchor Bay, Dimension and several Weinstein vanity reels prior to the skippable trailers for 'Scream 4,' 'Scary Movie 5,' '6 Souls' and 'Lords of Salem.'
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'Dark Skies' expands the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio to 2.40:1. You can expect the perfect crispness and clarity of a digitally shot film, only dragged under by many instances of subtle bands and a few occasions of crushing. What's it going to take to get flaw-filled BD-25s banned?
There's nothing greater than a video presentation that's rich in high definition detail, and 'Dark Skies' is full of it. Shortly into the film, we see a well-groomed Daniel sweating bullets during a job interview. An extreme close-up on the lower half of his face reveals intense facial features – recently shaved gray-ish skin that is well on its way to forming a five o'clock shadow, the natural vertical cracks and lines in one's lips, and the herky-jerky motion of mouth muscles nervously trying to spit out impressive words. Fine details are abundant.
The muted palette doesn't allow for many popping colors. If anything, it removes some of the life from the film. I'm assuming that this is intentional, as it really punches the "drained" look that Daniel and Lacy carry. The contrast is mostly good, but loses effectiveness when black levels crush out of control. This isn't always the case, which is great because a large portion of the movie is set during the night or in dark environments. Sadly, these same dark environments make room for the various examples of banding. Not only do street lights form bands as the light spreads into the darkness of night, but even the gradually changing intensity of light cast upon a wall or cupboard show the weakness of this compression flaw.
These flaws aren't fatal or even utterly noticeable, they're just annoying. Once you notice them, you won't stop seeing them.
'Dark Skies' has been given a highly effective 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that dynamically turns its artificial environments into a thriving and living one.
As the alien-related text opens the film, rich and deep ominous tones fill the air until we cut to aerial shots of calm suburbia. The eerie score conflicts with the peaceful on-screen images, creating an unsettling tension. Music is always dynamically mixed throughout all channels in order to add to the experience.
Effects are brilliantly mixed. When outdoors, sounds of passing cars (which also exemplify seamless imaging), children playing in the distance and birds chirping can be heard uniquely emitting from each of the speakers. As if the full and immersive sound wasn't enough, extra love is put into the individual sounds. For example, when dogs bark, you can hear the sound realistically echoing off the houses in different directions. This tender care is put into many different environments - pool parties, parking garages, Fourth of July fireworks and a dog kennel.
My only complain is that, while the vocal mix is clear, it tends to be locked into the front channels. There are plenty of occasions that call for great mixing, but don't take advantage of it. There's some fluctuating in the level of the voice track, but not nearly as much as the effects and music. The lossless audio of 'Dark Skies' succeeds in many ways, but the vocal mix is just a little behind the others.
I enjoy a good scary movie and I'm always up for a creative take on alien movies – but 'Dark Skies' is neither. In the same way that 'The Hangover Part II' was an ad lib of 'The Hangover,' 'Dark Skies' is a fill-in-the-blank mishmash of every generic scary movie ever made with aliens replacing the monsters/killers/demons. It has few thrills, no kills and doesn't do anything that you haven't seen before. The video and audio qualities are quite strong, but the special features are severely lacking. A single strong commentary and nine insignificant deleted/extended scenes are all that's contained. If you're thirsty for a great new scary movie, keep looking. 'Dark Skies' does not satiate.