Alien abduction films occupy a strange gray area in between horror, thriller, and sci-fi. Thus, they’ve always seemed underrepresented in the large horror zeitgeist.
One such example was 2013’s Dark Skies. Produced by Blumhouse (as well as the Weinstein Company unfortunately), Dark Skies had all the makings of a horror classic, but never really got the attention or recognition it deserved.
It’s not without its flaws, but it’s largely been forgotten and overlooked in the decade since its release. So in honor of its 10th anniversary, we wanted to take another look at Dark Skies, explore why it deserved more attention, and ultimately why that didn’t originally happen.
The film follows the Barrett family, as they’re going through something of a rough patch. Husband/father Daniel (Josh Hamilton) has been out of a job for some time and is struggling to get a new one, all while the bills are piling up. His wife Lacy (Keri Russell) works as a realtor and has likewise been struggling to sell a particular house, adding to the family’s overall stress. With everything going on at home, their two sons are getting into trouble they’re not even aware of.
Their youngest keeps talking about a mysterious “Mr. Sandman” the comes and visits him. And as time goes by, more and more strange things happen, like blackouts and flocks of birds flying right into the walls of the house. The whole movie relishes in a very grim and uncomfortable tone, usually reserved for supernatural ghost/demon horror like Insidious or The Ring.
The only difference being that the subject matter leans more towards an extraterrestrial source rather than a spiritual one. But that’s very much this film’s strength. Any topic, be it ghosts, demons, monsters, or aliens, is as scary as you make it. And Dark Skies does an excellent job of keeping its aliens just in the fringe of realism, and just out of frame enough that the sense of unknown around them is genuinely terrifying.
Rather than focus on the larger implications of alien abduction or invasion, it focuses more so on this single family and how their already stressful and weary existence is made worse by this looming threat. By making it about them, it personalizes the horror in a way that’s not easy to do. You really feel a sense of dread throughout that makes you intentionally uncomfortable.
Admittedly, there are similarities plot and tone wise with 2002’s Signs. But honestly, Dark Skies surpasses that film in a lot of ways. It never exposition dumps its theme to the audience the way Signs does at the end, it takes itself a bit more seriously and is more suspenseful. And when we do finally see the aliens, they’re still kept in the shadows so that our imagination is filling in the blanks, rather than the CGI creatures that haven’t aged well since 2002.
Not to dwell on comparing the two, but it’s important to explore how Dark Skies was at the top of its game in its subgenre, and that it played out like a supernatural suspense film, but just featured aliens instead of ghosts, for a very effective scare.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its cast. Released not too long before her debut in The Americans, Keri Russell was the first and only choice for the role and it shows. She does a great job of portraying a blend of frightened but determined, and vulnerable but strong. She’s fighting for her family, and while she begins to question her own sanity going down the alien rabbit hole, she’s willing to do whatever it takes for her children.
Both parents come off like real people, with real struggles and real reactions to things. Too often, horror films feature characters who stubbornly reject paranormal explanations because they “don’t believe in it”. And even if someone didn’t, it would be hard to continue denying its existence while supernatural phenomena keep happening and happening. And that’s very much what happens here.
But there is no discussing this movie without giving credit to J.K. Simmons, who despite only appearing for a few minutes in the third act, absolutely steals the movie. He plays the “alien expert” that Daniel and Lacy go to for advice on the subject, and while much of what he’s saying is exposition, he does it in such a way that it comes off as intriguing and realistic. He perfectly tows the line between someone who could be a crazy conspiracy theorist, or someone who’s just seen too much.
He offers them advice but doesn’t offer to do anything to help, But you get the sense it’s not because he doesn’t care or not because he dislikes them, it’s because he’s almost distanced himself personally from all this and has sadly just accepted the reality that aliens are going to abduct people and there’s not much he can do about it. Honestly, the only issue with his character was that we get so little of him.
(Not So) Stellar Reception
Despite its suspenseful tone and strong performances (both of which were praised by critics), Dark Skies sadly didn’t get much attention, and we’re going to discuss why. Firstly, releasing an original lower budget ($3 million) horror film in February wasn’t the best marketing choice back in 2013. That’s less of an issue nowadays, but 10 years ago if you dropped a movie like this in January or February, you were essentially leaving it out to dry.
It’s strange because the movie itself is very clearly set during the summer and even references having a 4th of July barbecue. The film itself was shot in August 2012 and released the following February, but it might have done better coinciding with a 4th of July release. After all, the film was rated PG-13, so a lot of teenagers who were off from school might have gone to see it then.
We also have to address the fact that while the movie was great in terms of style, atmosphere, and acting, it does take a little too long to get going. We don’t meet J.K. Simmons’ character until the third act and once the horror really gets going, it’s over far too quickly. Pacing-wise, you definitely feel like there’s a small chunk missing in the third act, and that you could have added an extra ten minutes of breathing room once the alien threat was fully understood. Either way, it’s a solid alien horror film that definitely deserves a watch if you haven’t seen it.
What did you think of Dark Skies? Let us know in the comments!
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