The only thing scarier than the unknown is knowing what you’re afraid of — and trying to keep it at bay.
I think that’s why alien conspiracy theories are as fascinating as they are frightening. There’s something terrifying in knowing that we’re maybe not alone in the universe, and in fearing those already living in our midst.
One overlooked, underrated 2013 sci-fi horror explores these ideas a little more indirectly, focusing on a family torn apart by harrowing phenomena they begin to observe happening inside their home. Here’s why Dark Skies is a movie you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on June 21.
Even if questions like “Who are they?” and “Where do they come from?” aren’t asked out loud by the film’s put-upon protagonists, Dark Skies is still a surprisingly atmospheric alien horror, crafted with remarkable skill.
Though its imagination doesn’t quite reach the ambitious heights of similar pictures like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 Signs, Dark Skies focuses on universal themes of togetherness, ones that resonate through the screen even as the film plays out as an elaborate, sometimes ungainly metaphor for domestic abuse. (Or, less seriously, a bedbug infestation. You can laugh, but anyone who has lived through one of those will tell you all about the sleepless nights and stress they suffered.)
Directed by Scott Stewart, whose Biblical action-horror film Legion and its 2014 Syfy sequel series Dominion are also woefully overlooked genre gems, Dark Skies tells the story of the Barretts, an otherwise normal suburban family. Their peacefully mundane existence is soon disrupted by strange incidents, all taking place at night. With father Daniel (Josh Hamilton) an out-of-work architect and mother Lacy (Keri Russell) the only breadwinner as a realtor who can’t sell a fixer-upper, these incidents couldn’t come at a worse time.
Part Poltergeist, part Signs, and pulling inspiration from plenty of other genre giants, Dark Skies initially resembles a blend of better movies. You may wonder why you’re not simply watching them instead. But give it a chance, and Dark Skies will surprise you. It might even impress you.
First, cinematographer David Boyd films in a handheld style, which turns the viewer into a practically invisible member of the Barrett family. The movie is mercifully never an outright found-footage movie, but it’s an unmistakable choice to have the camera follow Lacy and Daniel around the house so intimately it’s if you’re there with them. As a result, the jump-scares feel organic, landing in that sweet spot where human instinct indicating to us that something’s amiss fuels the scares more than forceful musical cues.
Second, strong performances from the likes of Russell (who started her Emmy-nominated run on The Americans the same year Dark Skies was released) and J.K. Simmons (in a supporting role as a reclusive expert who brings deathly-serious gravity to cuckoo conspiracies) give some much-needed heft to Dark Skies. You may not remember everything about Dark Skies after watching it, but you will remember Russell and Simmons sitting down to discuss aliens. It’s awesome.
In a 2013 Patch interview, the film’s director explained he was influenced by the rash of family tragedies that swept Northern California during his childhood in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Meshing these incidents togetehr with contemporary fears like neighborhood predators and financial insecurities post-recession, he created an anxious atmosphere for Dark Skies.
“There is the parental fear of, ‘Am I being a good parent?’ and ‘Am I providing in terms of financial needs?’ anxieties these days,” Stewart said. “It's hard not to feel like you are at the mercy of tidal forces, something larger that is bouncing you around ... I started looking at fear at the most primal level, particularly in the suburbs, of having a predator being around in the neighborhood. Especially people with children, and that was the basis of the feeling that I was looking at.”
In a separate interview with Den of Geek, Stewart also discussed news stories of awful parents as an influence, wondering if there was a supernatural element to them other people weren’t seeing:
“There have been a lot of stories about parents who have become notorious for being accused of doing terrible things to their kids. They don’t end up being convicted of them, like Casey Anthony or JonBenét Ramsey’s parents, or others around the world. I was thinking about that, and about how the public is rightly very skeptical of them and their stories are hard to believe, so I wondered what would happen if you took that into the realm of the fantastic? What if JonBenét Ramsey’s parents had said that a ghost strangled her in the basement? Everyone would immediately be like ‘String them up! Why even have a trial?’ But what if those characters were telling the truth?”
It’s fascinating how Stewart successfully adapts those fears into a sci-fi horror movie. All throughout Dark Skies, there are parallels to domestic abuse. At a swimming pool with family friends, the youngest Barrett, Sammy (Kadan Rockett) reveals bruises that shock everyone. When the eldest son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) — whose slightly older friend has the personality of a school shooter and with whom he watches pornography — is branded by the aliens, the hospital contacts Child Protection Services, which casts Lacy and Daniel in a negative light.
During their many arguments, Lacy accuses her husband of “putting [his] hands” on their children, which Daniel denies. Their conversation, despite taking place in an alien invasion movie, feels ripped out of a Lifetime made-for-TV special.
Though Dark Skies is unquestionably a sci-fi horror about a family randomly targeted by the unknown, most of the movie finds the Barretts in conflict with each other. The prying, judgmental eyes of the world around them proves suffocating as the Barretts struggle, and fail, to solve a very private situation for themselves. Even if Dark Skies doesn’t quite come together in the end with a cliffhanger conclusion, it’s still a terrifically frightening film that posits the scariest things aren’t aliens who hover above us — but those who already live among us.
Dark Skies is streaming now on Netflix until June 21.