Can a science fiction film be given the horror treatment? This isn't something new, like The Fourth Kind, but unlike that film, this one is truly terrifying, especially when you least expect it to be. Granted its credits never fail to remind you that the producers here were also behind Paranormal Activity and Insidious, but look hard for that ghoul set to spook, and you'll never find it. Instead it deals with alien abduction, and boy, has it never been delivered this good, and scary.
Written and directed by Scott Stewart, this is a definite improvement from his earlier efforts with Legion and Priest. Dark Skies lulls you into some complacency, introducing the audience to the Barrett family, who may seem like the typical all American one living in the suburbs, where dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is in between jobs, and mom Lacy (Keri Russell) supports the household for the time being as a realtor to keep the mounting bills at bay. Sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett) are the typical teenager and toddler growing up, with a little bit more focus on the former as he hangs out with relative geek company, and is on his first romantic brush with the daughter of his mom's best friend.
Then things start to go all strange, and at times begin to feel like Paranormal Activity in treatment for just a bit. Lacy finds herself inexplicably waking up in the middle of the night to encounter things like having her fridge raided by someone unknown, or seeing her kitchen wares and containers stacked in a geometric pattern. These are the more benign encounters, until flocks of migrating birds start to violently converge at their house, and each family member start to behave as if possessed, losing track of time, and being subconsciously unaware during their awake hours. Worse, they also seem to bear the marks of physical harm, and it's not long after that CCTV cameras got placed around the house.
But no, we're not given any found footage treatment or first person perspective, because that would be pushing the envelope of familiarity. Instead, Dark Skies relies on good old fashioned storytelling, with a fair bit of conventional devices, techniques and styles to amplify key moments in the narrative that will make you cringe at your seat, or be tightly grabbing onto that armrest when Stewart deftly builds suspense. The horror imagery got strongly built into carefully crafted scenes, which made this many times more effective than the average horror film that had blood, gore and makeup as part of its arsenal, something conspicuously absent in Dark Skies, but demonstrating that it could do a lot more with less.
The narrative was kept simple enough to revolve only around a handful of characters, and firmly around the family that allows it to be easily identifiable under a What If scenario, while building one's affiliation with them as they seem nice enough not to be suffering under such inexplicable terms. But what worked wonders here are the technical aspects, from its steady cinematography which is minus all the trappings of badly formed habits that would have made this a blur to follow, and solid editing that instills fear especially when transitioning between lost time. What stood out will be the brilliant sound design of course, adding that layer to bring that shiver down your spine. Watching this with the volume turned off would have neutered the film, and that's testament to how important, and effective this aspect was to the movie.
The finale is set to ruff a few feathers, although it may be a stretch to suggest that there would be doors left open for a follow up film. The cast delivered top performances, augmented by technical competency to make this the perfect blend of science fiction with horror sensibilities that puts many contemporary horror films of late to shame. A definite recommendation if you're looking for that heart-thumping thrill ride that's lacking in recent times for the genre fans.