Dark Skies [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (20th September 2013).
The Film

Husband and wife Daniel (Josh Hamilton) and Lacey Barrett (Keri Russell; who has made a righteous and much welcomed return to acting in the past year, with both this film, a handful of indies, and landing the lead role on FX’s “The Americans” (2013-present)) are an unassuming couple who blend in perfectly against the backdrop of a nameless American suburb. Two cars, two kids—Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett)—and their two-story house even has a picket fence. Of course, no couple or family is perfect, and behind the Barrett’s façade are the typical troubles. Their oldest, Jesse is acting out, which they blame on a combination of teenage hormones and the bad influence of a neighborhood tyrant he’s fallen in with. Money is in issue, too. Lacey’s a realtor, and hasn’t sold many houses in this economy. Daniel was laid off, and has yet to find another job as an architect—as most of his prospective employers continually tell him, the money just isn’t there for new designs and new construction.

For a while, writer/director Scott Stewart holds off on inflicting the greatest trouble of all on the Barrett family, letting us see them interact in their fragile but firmly held together state. The family is a working unit, if only barely. But then he drops something else from the dark skies of night into this plot of familial banality, and things get a whole lot worse. At first, Daniel and Lacey just chalk the additional, and increasingly odd problems up to a series of strange occurrences. Three separate flocks of birds bombard their home at once; their security system goes haywire every night despite assurances from the security company that everything checks out. And then Sam starts having strange seizure-like fits. And then so does Jesse. And Daniel and Lacey start having bizarre dreams, in which one of them dies, or creepy-looking creatures take one of the kids away. Then they start daydreaming, and losing time. And Sam starts drawing pictures of these creepy looking creatures haunting their dreams. Maybe some of what’s happening is real; maybe all of it is.

There’s something slightly Speilbergian about “Dark Skies”. And slight though it may be, its certainly more appropriate an association than the superficial, tangential connection the picture has with the vastly overrated and over-grossing “Paranormal Activity” franchise (2009-present), with which “Skies” shares a producer; no, not Spielberg. The studio’s nasty notion of “Paranormal Activity” liked-ness continues in the press materials sounding the home video release of Stewart’s “Skies”. But from the opening shots of his film, the writer/director consciously channels "The Beard", and seems to shuck conventions of modern shock-scare, found footage, horror at every turn after his opening shot. A found-footage feature this is not. Even when CCTV cameras are set up by forlorn father Daniel in a later part of the movie, where he attempts to capture whatever is haunting his family with video evidence, Stewart holds off on showing noisy night-vision views, locking the camera back in a static shot over Daniel shoulder. It’s a far more ominous, effective touch—evoking the sort of atmospheric subtly lacking in most modern haunted-house horror.

But “Dark Skies” isn’t a haunted-house picture. At least, not really. It twists the themes and conventions of a paranormal home invasion film by knotting it with extraterrestrial overtones. Yes, aliens. Or as they’re known in the film, the “Grey’s”—big-eyed, bulbous-headed creatures that are not an unfamiliar sight in alien invasion and abduction lore. The opening of “Skies” is right out of “Poltergeist” (1982), and suggests the same sort of slightly surreal suburbia seen in that film (and to a lesser extent, Spielberg’s actual alien feature, “E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial” (1982)) with a long take in sweeping panoramic widescreen. The frame is filled with domestic dullness. The camera roves the streets—as children ride bicycles and neighbors talk in the streets—before setting on the home of the Barrett family, where a majority of the film’s action will unfold. The setting frames the action, like “Poltergeist”, in the context of domesticity—the terrors and horrors of one’s own home turned against them. And the aliens are for friendly lie “E.T.”, or even “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), but bad one’s—one’s that want to harm.

Stewart favors flowing long takes over fast-cutting and low-def CCTV or handheld camcorder material. And it allows him to captures his scares in a sort of luridly stylish, ethereal lensing, where his camera floats through the halls of the Barrett home, while ominous low tones drone on the soundtrack, and the film’s characters literally navigate through their own nightmares. The film employs dream-state scares, whereas found-footage features try to sell the reality of a situation often to a fault, and this is why it works as well as it does for the first hour. In stark contrast to “Paranormal Activity” and the other found-footage films that seemingly litter the genre “Skies” also occupies, Stewart visuals are sharp and stylish, hiding the things that might go bump in the night in shadow and light, not low resolution night-vision. I suppose it helps that the conventionally horror only occupies a small portion of the film’s screen time—the dream sequences, which occur with increasing frequency as the film goes on to the point where the lines between dream-state and reality are blurred. But for most of the film, there’s a subtle building of something ominous against the backdrop of the characters that make up the Barrett family.

There’s a seeming intricacy to the first two acts—the appearance of tightly woven plot, twisting tandem story lines of familiar everyday life and more fantastical nightmares filled with foreign invaders from Mars—and one assumes it’ll all come together in the third act, with the bond of family either fully broken or strengthened by whatever relationship-testing events transpire in the final minutes of the movie. Alas, that’s not the case. Disappointingly, the seams split and it all sort of falls apart in the final conflict between the “Grey’s” and the Barrett clan. It isn’t even so much the whole final act itself, which turns the picture from alien to more home invasion territory—there’s even what I’m sure is a reference to “Straw Dogs” (1971”, with Daniel doing his best Dustin-Hoffman-wielding-a-doubled-barreled-shotgun in a protracted sequence. The problem lies in the contrived cop-out of an ending. The moments in the falling action rob the picture of its value. The ending seen in the final cut, which was re-shot when the originally scripted-and-shot version tested poorly with audiences, is oddly open, and not at all satisfying. It’s unfortunate the original ending wasn’t used because, as similarly strange and unsatisfying—in that its hopelessly unhappy—as it is, unlike the final frames of the theatrically released version, at least the original offers closure, downbeat though it. The original ending, offered as a supplement on this disc, fits the foreboding sense of doom that looms over the Barrett’s domestic sphere in the earlier parts of the picture. That continued doom is something that is more than somewhat lacking in the lame last scenes of the test-screened final cut. It’s a shame that Stewart’s original vision wasn’t restored for home video, as “Dark Skies” would be a much better picture with the intended ending.

Video

All around, “Dark Skies'” A/V presentation is a system tester. On the video side of things, the 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps high definition (AVC MPEG-4 encoded) transfer offers an abundance of texture and detail, bright and bold colors in the daylight scenes—with a particular predominance of lush grassy green—and the sort of fine consistency you’d expect from a recent release. The film’s visual style is one of the film's greatest attributes—perhaps greatest attribute—in part because writer/director Scott Stewart and cinematographer David Boyd make such excellent use of the Panavision frame, and motivated camera moves. They also play with light and shadow to similar effectiveness. At times the film is almost suffocatingly dark—and these moments will put your display’s black level to the test—but the scenes offer just enough shadow detail and delineation to cast off any mention crush. Shot on 35mm film, the picture retains a nice filmic texture with a thin layer of grain. The presentation is unmolested by edge enhancement or unwanted noise reduction, and compression artifacts, aliasing and other encode anomalies are also a non-issue.

Audio

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) is a bass busting track to be sure. A righteous, bombastic low-end emanates from the LFE in the film’s many off-kilter and eerie dream states, often combined with a pulsing tone-heavy score by Joseph Bishara. The sound designers clearly had a blast blending all sorts of foley in these sequences too—the rears come alive with odd effects, and stereo panning on the front-side is terrific. Dialogue reproduction is fantastic, and everything—from Lacy and Daniel’s bedtime whispers to the various, shrill, screams from their children—perfectly intelligible. The disc includes English for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

The 2-disc set includes a high definition Blu-ray and standard definition DVD, each with the same small selection of supplements: an audio commentary, additional scenes, and bonus trailers. An UltraViolet digital copy is also included.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

Audio commentary features writer/director Scott Stewart, producer Jason Blum, executive producer Brian Kavenaugh-Jones, and editor Peter Gvozdas spend a considerable amount of time discussing the mythos of the “Greys”. Of much more interest in my mind, they also discuss the mysterious ways of the studio system (and the test screening process in particular). There’s a lot of talk of the “original version” of the film—and how rewrites and the eventual re-shoots affected the film’s ending and overall tone.

Much of the “original cut” seems to be intact, although viewable outside of the film as alternate and deleted scenes (2.35:1 widescreen; 480i; 14 minutes 22 seconds, play all). The nine scenes, viewable with optional audio commentary by writer/director Scott Stewart and editor Peter Gvozdas, are titled as follows:

- "First tone"
- "Second tone"
- "Sammy outside with neighbors"
- "Alarm tech no. 2"
- "Daniel in backyard with neighbors"
- "Daniel takes a walk"
- "Lacey’s brand"
- "Daniel yells at neighbor"
- "Alternate Ending"

The disc also includes the following pre-menu bonus trailers (1080p) for:

- “Scream 4” (2.40:1 widescreen; 2 minutes 32 seconds).
- “Scary Movie 5” (1.85 widescreen; 2 minutes 13 seconds).
- “6 Souls” (2.40:1 widescreen; 2 minutes 27 seconds).
- “The Lords of Salem” (2.40:1; 2 minutes 9 seconds).

DISC TWO: DVD

The second disc features a standard definition transfer of “Dark Skies” presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and optional English and Spanish subtitles. The audio commentary, additional scenes, and bonus trailers found on the Blu-ray are also included on this disc. A digital copy code is included for UltraViolet.

Packaging

Anchor Bay and Weinstein Home Entertainment package “Dark Skies” in a 2-disc combo pack. The dual layered BD-50 and DVD-9 are locked to Region A and Region 1 respectively. The discs are housed in an eco-elite keep case.

Overall

There’s a lot about “Dark Skies” that I liked. It’s almost got a Spielbergian kind of vibe to it. The alien-invasion aspects and familial focus, and stylish visuals that seem at odds with every other modern horror, make it worth a watch. And it’s a very enjoyable watch, for a while. Unfortunately, the premise ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere, despite the decent build up. It’s disappointing because, with a few tweaks, this would’ve been (or, was; depending how you care to look at the altered ending) a better film. The Blu-ray’s video transfer is terrific, even if the at times oppressively dark visuals will put your display’s black level to the test; the DTS-HD Master Audio track is outstanding. Extras include an audio commentary and deleted scenes, both of which are worth checking out because they offer some insight into how test screening reshaped the picture (in my opinion, for the worse). “Dark Skies” is worth seeing, but I think it has little replay value, so perhaps a rental is the best option.

The Film: C+ Video: A- Audio: A+ Extras: C- Overall: B-

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.