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As husband and wife, Daniel (Josh Hamilton) and Lacy Barrett (Keri Russell) witness an escalating series of disturbing events involving their family, their safe and peaceful home quickly unravels. When it becomes clear that the Barrett family is being targeted by an unimaginably terrifying and deadly force, Daniel and Lacy take matters in their own hands to solve the mystery of what is after their family. (From The Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)

Dark Skies
Based on his creative output, visual effects developer/supervisor-turned-writer/director Scott Stewart has built a career on stealing already well-worn subject matter and pawning it off as original without any kind of personal slant. His feature-length debut as director, Legion, was a reproduction of a wide array of Christian-themed Armageddon stories, specifically comic book series like Garth Ennis’ Preacher and Alan Moore’s Hellblazer (the latter adapted into an uninspired movie called Constantine). His second film as director, Priest, was actually credited as being based on an existing comic series (credited as a ‘graphic novel,’ because it sounds ‘classier’) by Hyung Min-Woo, but Hyung’s work was, itself, already a pastiche of other Asian-themed vampire comics, like Vampire Hunter D and Helsing. Both films were utter messes, defined by waves of narrative stupidity and empty visuals, but worst of all, they were kind of boring, Priest in particular. Now, Stewart is dabbling in the oft-treaded world of alien abduction with Dark Skies – which is, ‘incidentally,’ the title of a unproduced John Sayles screenplay about malicious space invaders that eventually morphed into Spielberg’s E.T..

The film kicks off by introducing an unlikable cast of stereotypes --– a childish husband that is ashamed of his unemployed status and doesn’t like his son’s friends, an overworked wife that unknowingly ignores her family’s needs, a younger brother with spooky visions, and a mean-spirited tween/teen with a stupid haircut. Why do bad things always happen to upper-middle class white people? Anyway, before you can say Close Encounters of the Third Kind, random spooky events start to occur. It seems the aliens have been watching Poltergeist again. Nobody believes the unlikable family’s extra-terrestrial problem and placate their concerns with smirks. Their unlikable, upper-middle class friends and neighbours begin to act judgmentally, on the verge of being hateful, and, just in case the Speilbergisms weren’t numerous enough already, the unlikable parents are having money troubles and arguing a lot. In more capable hands, these stereotypes would be turned on their heads, but, unfortunately, Stewart is really just recycling old ideas with a straight face (he even rips the basics of a dinner scene from Shyamalan’s already unoriginal Signs at the top of the climax). There’s no greater truth beneath the veneer of this nuclear family’s discontent, nor are these characters rounded beyond their basic first act introductions. They also take a painfully long time to put two and two together, despite even a nominally savvy audience being ten steps in front of them at any given time.

Dark Skies
Stewart’s stylistic strengths hold together for a handful of sequences. His visual motifs and floating camera work make for a slick-looking experience, but he recalls so many other movies that it’s impossible not to constantly compare him to better filmmakers. The influx of disconcerting human interactions certainly create an air of dread, but the persistent effect is closer to frustrating or flat-out annoying than scary. It also doesn’t help that Stewart keeps reusing the same suspense and scare techniques over and over, despite none of them being particularly frightening the first time around, or that the supposedly creepy scenes are almost always more unintentionally funny than intentionally disturbing. Pacing is another issue. Stewart would probably call it deliberate, but it’s closer to tiresome, verging on downright lethargic. The adult cast is decent, especially given the limits of the screenplay, but Stewart’s insistence on a despondent tone leaves the performances untextured and two-note – depressive and shouty.

Dark Skies

Video


Dark Skies was reportedly shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.40:1 video. Stewart and cinematographer David Boyd use the digital format’s dynamic light range to create an even palette and lifelike detail in really dark conditions. Most scenes have a single harsh light source that creates pretty heavy shadow and highlight contrasts, but the digital gradients remain smooth. Problems arise when the frame gets too dark and the details are washed out in a sea of dark shapes. Boyd tends to pull his focus pretty tightly, which leaves background details a bit blurred, but this makes for some very sharp foreground details. When backgrounds do come into greater focus, the complex patterns are plenty crisp. The general palette is a mix of gold and teal hues with the occasional red and blue element that pops without blooming or vibrating. There is some digital noise in the darker hues (greens and flesh tones intermingle a bit) and the soft focus backgrounds have some minor issues with banding, but there aren’t any blocking effects or major problems with edge enhancement to worry about.

Dark Skies

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is quite lively, filling the various channels with all manner of subtle and aggressive ambient noise. The natural environments are softly embedded within the sounds of everyday life, while the supernatural elements tend to press the volume into higher levels. The natural noises have plenty of multi-channel influence (usually for the sake of a scare), but the supernatural bits are much more directionally enhanced, including swirling electronic buzzes that slowly overwhelm the entire soundscape. During the climax, the sound designers have great fun filling the stereo and surround channels with synthesized ‘eerie’ ringing, creaking wood, and rumbling bass, very little of which makes much sense, but it certainly sounds cool. Composer Joseph Bishara’s musical score is one of the film’s stronger components. It has a palpable and spooky melancholy mood and sells Stewart’s tepid scares. The score is best when warmly throbbing beneath the action, but also works quite well when given the chance to blend with the sound effects to create a wall of alien noise.

Dark Skies

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary featuring Stewart, producer Jason Blum, executive producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, and editor Peter Gvozdas. The participants work together pretty well while recalling the film’s production, though Stewart and Blum clearly run the track. They remain relatively screen-specific without getting in the way of the pacing of the discussion, which is jam-packed with information (there’s almost no blank space throughout). Subject matter covers a wide spectrum of the behind-the-scenes story, including all points in the production schedule and a mix of technical and narrative elements. The discussion is so thoughtful, informative, and tonally inviting that I find myself bemoaning the fact that these nice guys couldn’t put together a better movie. At least it seems that no one was particularly concerned with creating a masterpiece, nor does anyone seem to imply that they think their achievements were necessarily successful. Towards the beginning of the track, Blum makes an interesting statement. Apparently, Stewart came to him with a found footage script, and, despite having made a mint producing Paranormal Activity movies, Blum says that Dark Skies wouldn’t have worked as a found footage picture. In fact, he claims that he now tries to discourage found footage scripts at this point and asks for them to be rewritten as standard narrative films.

The disc also features nine deleted/alternate scenes with optional director and editor commentary (14:20, HD), including a slightly different ending, and a series of Weinstein Company trailers.

Dark Skies

Overall


Dark Skies is slick enough mishmash of other alien invasion/abduction movies, but serves little purpose outside of making its audience remember better movies. It’s not very scary, the character interactions are usually more frustrating than moving, and the humourless execution makes for a trying experience. The only real value I can see here is a drinking or bingo game where you have a drink or mark a box every time a genre trope is used. This Blu-ray features an ever so slightly messy 1080p transfer, a fantastic DTS-HD MA audio track, deleted scenes, and a strong commentary track that makes me wish I liked the film more.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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