There’s a good movie somewhere in Dark Skies. You can see it trying to get in, and those moments when it does display a surprising amount of power. The same thing happened with writer/director Scott Stewart’s previous film, Priest, a disappointing effort that nonetheless hints at much greater things. Here, we leave with the exact same impression. The elements are there. Someone just assembled them the wrong way.
Stewart works extremely well with individual scenes. His set-ups and blocking are exquisite, and his alien abduction scenario gives him plenty of opportunities to exploit it. A seemingly normal suburban family experiences strange phenomenon that slowly grows worse. The parents (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) go from perplexed to concerned to terrified as cans of food stack themselves in the kitchen, alarm systems go off without warning and a flock of birds (or more precisely, three flocks) fly straight into their house for no apparent reason. As anyone who’s seen the previews can tell you, the incidents signal an incursion from outer space. The increasingly isolated family needs to determine the reason for the assaults and mount some kind of defense before the greys begin their probing in earnest.
The incursions follow a specific pattern, but Stewart touches all the right beats and delivers some reliable scares in the process. Greys can be terrifying in the right context; this movie knows how to present them effectively. Would that it could marry some reasonable pacing with the nuts-and-bolts shocks. Unfortunately, the early incidents lose their potency through undue repetition, and a distressing lack of build-up causes the film to spin its wheels well before the second act.
Stewart tries to compensate with a more mundane domestic drama interspersed with the freaky stuff. The older son (Dakota Goyo) experiments with girls and pot, the father’s out of work, etc. Again, it lays the groundwork for some interesting material; the greys act as stand-ins for ordinary anxieties, reflecting their victims’ paralyzing helplessness in the face of larger economic and emotional issues. Again, that potential never quite comes together, as the daily-life stuff clashes badly with the aliens-are-coming-for-you material that it’s supposed to augment.
The lack of pacing hits hardest during the film’s second half, thanks to a messy chunk of plot exposition intended to get us up to speed in a rush, followed by a contrived finale that brings everything crashing down around us. Once more, it didn’t need to be that way. Stewart has a twist in mind, a reasonably clever one with the potential to make a rousing conclusion had he developed it with any care. Stewart buries the lead, failing to emphasize the facts that would make his ending work, then throwing a twist that can’t blow our minds because we needed that earlier push to understand it all.
Russell does her best to support the material, leaping into her concerned mother role with full gusto and helping to sell us on an ordinary woman confronted with unbelievable facts. J.K. Simmons makes a welcome presence as well, creating a viable character even though he exists solely to tell us what the hell is going on. These performers could have fully rejuvenated the material and turned Dark Skies into the movie it was meant to be. Everything was there, every element it needed… and yet somehow, it still falls apart. Indeed, it becomes even more frustrating because we can see better things in every frame. Whether they were left on the cutting room floor or just didn't appear during the shoot itself is irrelevant. Dark Skies is worse than a bad movie, it’s a wasted movie: made by someone with talent who still hasn’t translated his skills into the good stories he clearly wants to tell.