As in many films whose plots collide with the alien and supernatural, the fictive landscape of “Dark Skies” begins in domestic tranquillity. Kids ride bikes and skateboards and run through sprinklers. Parents push their offspring on swings. Suburban bliss.
Or perhaps an unpleasantness already festers under the surface.
At the Barrett family homestead, there are soccer practices and backyard barbecues. An American flag hangs over the front door. But all is not right in this slice of the upper middle class. Husband Daniel (a haggard Josh Hamilton from “Kicking and Screaming”), an out of work architect, lies about a promising job interview. The mom, Lacy (Keri Russell of “Waitress” and TV’s “Felicity”) can’t pick up the financial slack as a real estate broker. They bicker about paying the bills. Older son Jesse (Dakota Goya of “Real Steel”) watches soft-core porn, smokes pot, and gropes a neighborhood girl. And youngest kid, Sammy (Kadan Rockett), is having creepy dreams about the Sandman.
Then comes the kookier, unexplainable stuff, of the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” kind: scrambled surveillance camera footage, groceries mysteriously stacked in geometric patterns, Mom seeing creatures in her son’s room while he sleeps.
Maybe it’s stress. Or the recession. Or perhaps aliens have implanted a device behind your right ear and you keep scratching at the scabby rash and it gets worse and then come the episodes of sleepwalking, nosebleeds, and screaming.
In his smart, suspenseful psychological thriller, writer-director Scott Stewart goes beyond “Paranormal Activity” spooks to suggest how our nation’s economic woes have corroded the family’s psychic foundation. Wounded by financial insecurity, we keep up appearances. But we remain paranoid, especially when some otherworldly force invades our domicile to bruise and brand our kids. Who can we turn to? Not the police and child services. Worse, what will the neighbors think?
As the danger ratchets up, husband and wife either must accuse each other — “We have a lot to handle right now without you getting crazy,” Daniel says to Lacy; “Everyone thinks we’re freaks,” Jesse pouts to Dad — or stick together, fight as a family, and believe.
Stewart, who also directed the comic book adaptation “Priest” and the supernatural thriller “Legion,” brings a more nuanced approach to “Dark Skies.” His compositions recall the melancholic domesticity of photographer Gregory Crewdson, and the sound design, distorting wind chimes with radio static, keeps the tone destabilizing. We never quite see the hostile forces, either, and they have no world-destroying game plan. The spacemen aren’t “blowing up monuments,” says the alien expert the Barretts finally turn to (played by wonderful character actor J.K. Simmons, from TV’s “The Closer”). “The invasion already happened.” Clever.
The topper? The director has the courage not to end on a happy note. God bless “Dark Skies.” And God bless these United States.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.