After a couple energetically ludicrous fantasy-horror actioners, visual-effects veteran turned writer-director Scott Stewart (“Legion,” “Priest”) somewhat overcompensates in the direction of restraint with the more straightforward chiller “Dark Skies.” Featuring all the attention to character, reality-grounding and slow suspense-building those films had no time for, this tale of an average middle-class family imperiled by possible alien visitors is solid genre entertainment, but it may not go far enough in terms of originality or payoff to sustain much biz after posting decent opening numbers this weekend. Ancillary prospects are strong.
Contrary to a kickoff montage of idyllic suburban life, this particular suburbia is not a picture-perfect Spielbergian haven from harsh realities, as both the many foreclosure signs and Joseph Bishara’s effectively ominous score suggest. The Barretts are worried about their own mortgage: architect dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has been between jobs a little too long, and mom Lacy’s (Keri Russell) real-estate commissions have dropped as she tries to push foreclosed fixer-uppers on nervous young couples. Their sons sense the parental stress while going through their own age-appropriate stuff: 13-year-old Jesse (Dakota Goya) is just getting interested in girls while getting into minor trouble with older kid Kevin (LJ Benet), while 6-y.o. Sammy (Kadan Rockett) has occasional nightmares, thanks to Jesse’s scary bedtime stories.
A series of increasingly bizarre nocturnal disturbances — a raided refrigerator, rearranged family possessions, etc. — seem all the more disturbing because there are no signs of external entry. The police assume somebody within the family is sleepwalking or playing pranks. But there’s no such explanation for why hundreds of birds fling themselves against the Barretts’ home as if magnetically pulled there, or why each family member begins experiencing blackouts or seizure-like episodes. When Lacy seems to glimpse a long tall stranger (of the E.T. variety) by Sammy’s bedside, Daniel thinks she’s losing it. After he installs a surveillance camera system — and long before the now-desperate couple visit an expert (J.K. Simmons) in such phenomena — they realize they’re indeed up against something otherworldly.
In a welcome departure from the silliness of “Legion,” Stewart’s script spends wisely devotes quality time to the everyday, establishing the Barretts as a normal, functioning yet fallible unit, well-etched by both adult and juve thesps. It’s also smart enough to touch on inevitable community fears (once the kids’ distress makes it appear their parents might be abusing them) without letting that overwhelm the narrative.
But after a while this drumbeat grows monotonous, while the scares never greatly escalate. The full-on home-invasion climax does briefly go off into a weird, surreal direction — and springs a decent-enough twist. But in the end, a pretty good buildup to OK payoff without any real surprises en route makes “Dark Skies” feel just enough above average to make one wish it had one memorable spark of conceptual inspiration up its sleeve.
Eschewing the high-gloss (let alone FX-crowded) look of his prior features, Stewart and collaborators go for an unshowy presentation that’s competent if sometimes verging on bland.