2013 surely won't bear witness to a more egregious appeal to authority than the one that opens Dark Skies:
"Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
-Arthur C. Clarke
The award-winning author and inventor would undoubtedly be happy to know that his gravity was being used to prop up a crummy little horror movie, especially with the way that "Both are equally terrifying" is emphasised in a blood red font.

That being said, this rather seedy gesture is the only indication for more than half of the movie as to the most single interesting facet of Dark Skies, which is that it is, structurally, a virtually flawless example of the contemporary haunted house movie, in which a suburban family is assaulted by a Malevolent Something that fixates on their youngest child, only the ghosts in this case are actually aliens. I need hardly point out that "the best thing is that it's a ghost story about aliens" means exactly what you think it does vis-Γ -vis the film's overall level of quality, though in the same breath I will point out that Dark Skies is certainly the finest movie yet made by writer-director Scott Stewart, of Legion and Priest, perhaps because its relentlessly narrow focus prevents him from indulging into the madly off-the-mark religious iconography that made his previous films extravagantly terrible instead of merely bad.

So we've got the Barretts, realtor Lacy (Keri Russell, the name talent) and unemployed architect Daniel (Josh Hamilton), as well as sullen 13-year-old son Jesse (Dakota Goyo, whose name is awesome) and young Sam (Kadan Rockett, whose name is more awesome still; I want them to form a surf punk band, Kadan Rockett and the Dakota Goyos). They are suffering through an economic down time that is making everybody fairly impatient with everybody else, but it's about to get worse: in the week before 4 July, strange things are happening inside their house, with Lacy finding on two consecutive nights a terrible mess in the kitchen and then the exact polar opposite of a mess: seemingly every can and bottle in the house balanced on the island in an impossibly complex structure that causes light reflections on the ceiling in pristine circular patterns. This is unnerving, but not half as out and out freaky as what's about to go down: hundreds of starlings flying right in the Barretts' windows, dying in a grisly blanket across the lawn, and Sam's sudden tendency to go blank for minutes at a time, during which he pads around silently, walking right through the house's security system as if it wasn't there at all. The magic of the internet - and based on the websites we see Lacy visit, using the search terms she does, "magic" is the only possible explanation for how well her research turns out - suggests that the explanation might having some thing to do with extraterrestrials, but that's a long way into the movie, and really, "the internet told me that it's aliens" is functionally indifferent from "the internet told me it's the demon Pooka", or whatever the hell the stupid name was of the ghost in Sinister.

Dark Skies is not only about invading aliens whose psychology is so removed from ours as to make them totally unknowable, it was apparently written by them. The screenplay is remarkably deficient at the most mechanical level: the scenes take place in an order that for the most part doesn't matter, there is no escalation of tension or clues, only "weird thing happens, weird thing happens, weird thing happens, weird thing happens - shit, I guess it must be aliens". In an effort to humanise the family at the center of all this, Jesse is plunged into a subplot about his nasty stoner older best friend Kevin "Rats" Ratner (L.J. Benet) and his crush on Shelly (Annie Thurman), daughter of his parents' close friends, but these scenes are so unimportant and undeveloped, and so ill-integrated into the story until a truly horrendous climactic sequence that plays like 2001 by way of Uwe Boll, that it feels like nothing more than the lumpen padding it is (the film is a hardly bloated 97 minutes, but there's no doubt that an 80-minute version chopping out all the Jesse material would be a tighter and better movie, if still pretty bad). This, like the constant scenes dwelling on Lacy and Daniel's financial troubles and the way that it interferes with their marriage, is clearly meant to make us like the characters more and feel sorrier for them as shit falls apart, but it's too clinical, and too clearly designed to serve a screenwriting function, instead of coming up naturally - it is not a film about people to whom things happen, it is about the things that happen to people, and the more it tries to make them relatable and nice, the more they cease to resemble anything but a hack writer's Mad Libs. "The pair-bonded adults are fighting with each other, and the elder manchild is feeling pubertal stirrings, and the young manchild is adorable and has crooked teeth", insists the movie, not understanding that it's insufficient to put characters in a situation and let it happen. They have to be persuasively etched and performed, and neither of these things happen here.

The general paucity of the scenario bleeds over to a production that feels awfully cheap: the make-up, behind-the-ear implants and forehead bruises and whatever else, announces itself a bit too readily as artificial, and the digital cinematography is unpleasantly sharp and bright, like you were never really meant to see it anywhere other than a television (and lo! DP David Boyd's career has been largely dominated by TV shows). About the CGI aliens, I prefer not to say anything at all. That something like four-fifths of the movie take place in a single-family home or its yard only underlines the feeling that we're watching something made on a budget, almost like another knock-off of Paranormal Activity that attempted to be classier than found-footage, but forgot to adjust its plot accordingly (and even so, the installation of cameras and then reviewing the footage end up being an important development later in the movie).

Luckily, there is one bright spot: J.K. Simmons, character actor extraordinaire, crops up late in the movie as the alien expert who fills precisely the function of the psychic that shows up and says "I cannot fight this, you have something too evil in this house", other than that they go to him, he doesn't come to him. Simmons underplays the character something fierce, as more of a bored hobbyist with a particularly eccentric set of interests, not as a twitch paranoid X-Files cast-off. By no means is it great acting, but it's grounded and plain to a degree that serves like a life preserver that far along into a movie without any recognisable humans in it. It is not unlike a mouthful of brackish water for the man in a desert; it would be useful in any normal context, but coming where it does, you couldn't possibly be more grateful for something even moderately nourishing.

3/10