Distancing himself from the CGI-heavy aesthetics of previous efforts Priest (2011) and Legion (2009), director Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies (2013) attempts to combine the carefully orchestrated suspense of a haunted house horror with the extraterrestrial threat of an allegorical sci-fi. However, this enticing blend ultimately churns out a curious, yet sterile and clichéd examination of contemporary economic anxieties. Soaring through the white picket fences and immaculately mowed lawns of American suburbia, Dark Skies paints an instantly recognisable depiction of a 21st century idyll – a portrait of freedom and comfort.
For the Barrett family, this tranquil existence is about to become a thing of the past, as a series of disturbing events and inexplicable security breaches rapidly escalates into a domestic nightmare of detainment and distress. What begins as a bizarre series of pranks and unnatural phenomena soon leads to the threat of full-scale alien abduction, with the paranormal activities of Dark Skies’ extraterrestrial invaders rapidly escalating from childish pranks to far more sinister undertakings (involving the two children). Saviour comes in the form of a quick Google search for unexplained bird deaths and similar occurrences, which offers the Barrett family an opportunity to keep themselves safe from harm.
Opening with a poignant quote from British sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, it’s clear from the outset that Dark Skies is aspiring to be more than your average shocker. Amalgamating the celestial menace of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) with the household mechanics of the Paranormal Activity cycle, Stewart’s portentous thriller is a generally well-executed mood piece that sadly lacks both personality and suspense. Preferring unnerving tension for sudden jumps and scares, the film’s early atmospherics are perfectly functional. Instead, it’s the over-employment of comatose and gormless expressions of amazement and disbelief from the cast that dilutes any semblance of genuine terror.
It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist or deluded TV FBI agent to see past Dark Skies’ otherworldly veneer, exposing the brazen allegory of Western economic decline that lies beneath. Science fiction has often been used to illuminate contemporary social issues, whilst horror tends instead to prey upon subconscious preoccupations induced by everyday troubles and quandaries. Stewart’s Dark Skies admirably attempts to unify these two reflective genres to show how financial insecurity has infected the safe haven of middle-class America. However, an incredibly ham-fisted approach turns this cautionary tale into a tedious, transparent pretender.