After more than an hour spent touring its well-furnished haunted-house atmospherics, Dark Skies culminates in an image as striking as it is deeply disconcerting: A family besieged by aliens gathers together to watch the Fourth of July fireworks on TV, the tune of “America the Beautiful” in the background, the windows of their home haphazardly boarded, their new guard dog barking furiously, a newly purchased shotgun clutched tightly by the protective patriarch prepared for an imminent invasion. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to detect the thinly veiled conservatism at play in this scene, and it doesn’t take an undue alarmist to be disturbed by the implications of this sort of fear-mongering. The strain of distinctly American paranoia coursing through the film’s otherwise rather rote generic framework creates an interesting friction between ideology and convention, and in a sense it’s refreshing to find a routine Hollywood exercise engage, even feebly, with the zeitgeist; its politics may be vaguely abhorrent, but at least its iconography actively evokes something real. Most horror movies are bad on simple formal terms; this one is bad in a more serious way.
The film seems, for a spell, to follow the basic formula established by two earlier Jason Blum productions, Insidious and Sinister, almost to the letter: A suburban, middle-class family is gradually introduced to unexplainable and potentially supernatural phenomenon which increases in severity until their doubt is finally dispelled and they believe enough to fight back. The differences are largely superficial and relate to the precise nature of the haunting (demons bridging a supernatural plane in Insidious, a child-eating pagan deity living in 8mm film in Sinister, and alien visitors referred to as “The Grays” here), but the details, as probably goes without saying, are less relevant to the proceedings than the efficacy of the scares. Though it succeeds in replicating the overall architecture of those films, Dark Skies’s component parts are poorly constructed, lacking the finesse and artistry of the models its design follows. Director Scott Stewart, who cut his teeth on critically lambasted dark-fantasy fare like Priest and Legion, isn’t nearly as accomplished a visual stylist as someone like Scott Derrickson, whose total command over the image was apparent in every shot of Sinister. Blum’s production outline, though appealing, clearly requires a director with a good feel for atmosphere and detail. Stewart isn’t up for the job.
But then there comes a point, between the second and third acts, at which Dark Skies evolves (or perhaps devolves) from an ineffectual haunted-house film into a considerably more brazen parable of immigration and the corruption of the American home. Films about alien invasion and abduction have a rich history of period-specific metaphor, of course, rooted in fears of encroaching communism. It’s a tradition to which Dark Skies happily belongs, reasserting its relevance at a time when the far right yearns to be rallied and galvanized. As the family at the heart of this story—an all-American brigade struggling to scrape by in this crazy economy—are finally ready to believe that the strange occurrences in their neighborhood are the result of some terrible looming Other, they visit Dr. Pollard (J.K. Simmons), an expert in the supernatural who instructs our heroes to steel themselves against the oncoming danger. “The invasion,” he intones solemnly, “already happened.” It’s explicated in full: The aliens live among us and they want to take your
jobs kids. Board up your suburban home and protect your family, because, god dammit, nobody else will. “Why don’t you go to the police?” the confused son asks his father as they nail wood to the windows together. “They wouldn’t understand,” he replies. Indeed. If nothing else, Dark Skies is the definitive horror film for the Tea Party era. That’s scarier than the aliens themselves.