Collins’ Crypt: DARK SKIES Is Decent And That’s Okay

Not every movie has to occupy the extreme ends of the quality spectrum.

There's a strange trend happening lately that really bums me out, where movies are seemingly judged on a pass/fail system - it's either the best movie you've seen in ages or else it's terrible. I don't know if the ascension of social media is to blame, because Twitter forces you to be selective and thus it's easier to just say a movie rocks/sucks than put some thought into how to describe your feelings when you only have 140 characters to use. But it's definitely a problem that really hurts a movie like Dark Skies, which hits DVD and Blu-ray today a mere three months after its theatrical debut. It's not a great film, but it's a competent, solid one that does its job and does it well, something that surprised me as I was told by more than one friend who had seen it early that it was "terrible," and got many more replies along the same level after I saw it and tweeted (natch) that it was better than expected.

Hell, even its own studio seemed to think it was a dog; not that any Dimension release tends to be a ratings darling anymore, but they will usually at least show it to the likes of me the week of release - I even got to see Rob Zombie's Halloween II early despite the thrashing I gave his first one (which I saw TWICE prior to release!). But Dark Skies' lack of press screenings wasn't even the worst of it - for a while it seemed that Dimension wanted to cancel the ones people actually paid for as well. Our friend Matt Singer has a hilarious account of what happened when he tried to see it at a regular midnight screening in New York (long story short - the screening was canceled), and here in Los Angeles Thursday night screenings were mysteriously wiped out or relegated to theaters way outside of town. Even my Saturday afternoon screening at an AMC was met with a lengthy, unexplained delay, something I have never experienced at this particular theater.

Things like this didn't exactly inspire confidence, which is probably why the film performed far below par for producer Jason Blum; its final gross of $17 million or so is less than the opening weekend take of most of his other movies (Sinister and the Paranormal Activity series). But it only cost a couple million to make, and they clearly weren't breaking the bank with their promotion, so I'm sure it made a few bucks for everyone, and they can take some comfort in the fact that it hung around for a while - as of last weekend it was still playing in a handful of theaters, a full three months after its release - which is more than you can say for the "hit" Texas Chainsaw 3D. And it bested Eli Roth twice; it stuck around longer than (and outgrossed) Last Exorcism Part 2, and on the weekend fellow Dimension release Aftershock opened, Dark Skies - in its 12th weekend - had a better per screen average than his earthquake/survival horror blend.

And now it's on Blu-ray, where it should enjoy a healthy life as a rental or even a purchase for those who enjoy family-based horror like Insidious and Poltergeist. Yes, the PG-13 rating keeps the gore and violence at bay, but that doesn't mean the film isn't scary - there's a terrific jump scare involving one of the film's "greys" hovering over one of the kids' beds, and the final sequence is actually pretty terrifying, plus it doesn't lead to a happy ending. It also has one of my favorite "dream sequences" in recent memory - I won't spoil it here, but I will say if you're inclined to groan at a certain part, you should hold off for a bit. Also working in its favor is an above-average realism with regards to the family unit; Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are a likeable, believable couple with the same financial issues the rest of us have, and the kids are thankfully not annoying at all. There's a victory for Hamilton's character at the halfway part that had me a bit choked up even on a second viewing - a real treat in a genre that's usually so focused on the scares that they forget to make us care about the folks they are happening to. I don't know about you, but I can't remember a goddamned thing about any of the people being haunted in the Paranormal sequels, let alone care about what their lives are like even when nothing scary is happening.

It also gives us JK Simmons, though not nearly enough of him. Simmons can elevate just about anything just by showing up, but by the time he does so (over an hour into the movie!), it might be a bit late if you haven't been on board with the rest of it. And it's a shame, because his Pollard is a terrific character; he knows about the aliens' existence, but has given up trying to tell folks that the sky is falling. Instead he has just moved into an apartment building that doesn't allow dogs (they're more attuned to the alien presence and bark nonstop when they're around) and keeps an eye on the situation, offering insight to the Barretts but otherwise just trying to stay out of it. It's a refreshing departure from the usual crackpot type, eyes bugged out and tossing reading material around to the heroes while frantically dumping exposition all over the place; Simmons barely even moves during his five minutes of screentime.

I was hoping there would be more of him on the Blu-ray's deleted/extended scenes section, but alas the excised material is largely focused on the Barrett family's neighbors. As bad things happen throughout the film, the neighbors start to suspect the father is abusing them or something, an element that was originally clarified over and over again with neighbors looking out their windows, giving him (or Russell) dirty looks, and disinviting them from block parties. As director Scott Stewart explains on the optional commentary for these scenes, the point was made with what they had in the final cut, rendering this stuff a bit excessive. There's also an inferior original ending that opts for something more flashy than the superior theatrical ending, which successfully toes the line between being a downer and being hopeful.

Stewart, Blum, fellow producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, and editor Peter Gvozdas also provide a feature commentary that's definitely worth a listen if you're interested in the editing process. While they all pay their respects to the actors and discuss the usual sort of commentary things (shooting locations, FX snafus, etc), they spend a lot of time discussing how the film was shaped in editing - everything from toning down Russell's skepticism so that she didn't come across as an antagonist, to the aforementioned "suspicious neighbor" subplot, and even how they had to flip a shot around because a preview audience member pointed out a continuity mistake. It can be a little dry; jokes are few and far between (I like Blum joking that all of his movies "have to" have someone using video cameras), but it didn't put me to sleep like most tracks do, so there's something. It's also worth noting that Stewart was a CGI artist before he turned to directing, so it's nice to hear him talk with authority on real directorial issues (and in a film with few visual FX), as so many of his "FX guru turned director" peers seem to think directing is merely an excuse to show off their VFX prowess. Indeed, this is his best film (his previous efforts were the clunky Legion and the mangled Priest), so I kind of love the irony that he seems to be the most capable at handling a smaller, largely effects-free story.

Having watched it twice now (three times with the commentary), I remain baffled at how anyone could watch this and dub it "terrible" or "worst movie of the year". It's competently made and acted, puts a fun spin on the haunted house genre (when's the last time you saw an alien invasion movie that took place almost entirely in a suburban house? Don't say ET.), and avoids fake scares - no one silently standing behind a loved one in the bathroom until they shut the medicine cabinet! It probably won't end up on my top 10 list or anything, but if you see it on someone's worst list - they either had a grudge against someone on the crew or merely didn't see enough movies. Not every movie has to occupy the extreme ends of the quality spectrum - let's not damn a movie for being comfortable with itself enough to set its sights a little lower and succeed.