The Barrett family home is plagued by mysterious phenomena – suicidal birds, poltergeist activity, inexplicable thefts – and the Barretts suffer blackouts, nightmares and the attentions of spindly, shadowy night visitors. Lacy Barrett (Keri Russell) worries one of her family has been targeted for abduction by ‘greys’.
In the mid-20th century, parascience shifted. Phenomena like possession, child abduction, mystery mutilation and furniture rearrangement previously blamed on demons or fairies was now laid at the three-toed feet of the big-eyed, bald ‘greys’, popularly (but not invariably) taken to be space aliens. Horror films like the Exorcist cycle of the ‘70s and the more recent Paranormal Activity pictures kept the supernatural explanation alive in pop culture, but there has been a steady influx of alien encounter mythology into the haunted house sub-genre.
Ex-effects man writer-director Scott Stewart previously established an auteur personality with loopy Paul Bettany vehicles (Legion, Priest) firmly in the Biblical apocalypse camp, but here sobers up considerably and tells a familiar story with almost aching sincerity. A contemporary touch is that Dad (Josh Hamilton) and Mom (Keri Russell) are respectively out of work and on the point of being fired and so have all manner of economic woes to go along with the suspicions of child abuse, devil worship and general malign weirdness directed against them when the aliens start making their lives hell. It’s a problem for the film that the Barretts go through several seasons’ worth of X-Files episode premises in the course of a few weeks and yet keep earnestly struggling with what’s going on. A handy online search (‘this is why we don’t self-diagnose on the internet’) and a cameo by reliable loon J.K. Simmons provide explanation and exposition, but the whole audience knows what’s happening well before they do. Haven’t these people seen The UFO Incident, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Communion, Fire in the Sky, Taken, Signs, The Fourth Kind or any of those pesudo-documentaries on cable?
Dark Skies is utterly generic, down to a meaningless title lifted from the 1996 X-Files knock-off TV series. Hamilton and Russell play with all the plodding sincerity of a Lifetime TV movie about middle-class meltdown, though the kids – Dakota Goyo (young Thor) and Kadan Rockett – manage to be creepy and sympathetic at the same time and bring much-needed conviction to the more hysterical passages.
This would like to be the Paranormal Activity of alien encounter films, down to a surveillance video subplot, but it’s more on the level of midlist spookers like Boogeyman or The Messengers. It’s unnerving while you’re watching it – Stewart stages one or two genuine jump-out-of-your-seat scares – but you might find it’s a gap in your memory a week or two later.