Who here has seen that identity thief movie? And by that we don’t mean the one in which Melissa McCarthy schools Jason Bateman on new levels of quasi-comedic rudeness, but the one that actually is an Identity Thief. Yep, we’re talking about Dark Skies — the movie about terrifying alien invaders that appropriated its genre and title from the scary, 1996-97 TV series of the same name.
In Hollywood, as in any business, a name is everything. It’s your brand, it’s who you are. The old Hill Street Blues television series had fun with this idea in a classic episode that featured a comedian named Vic Hitler who couldn’t understand why audiences didn’t buy his act. That kind of unfortunate moniker dooms an entertainer or a project to failure, while a winning name like, say, Snakes on a Plane can go a long way toward getting a film made no matter how weak the script behind it.
It’s understandable, then, that Dimension Films might want to use the spooky, evocative title Dark Skies to brand its new science fiction horror film. It’s a little less clear why Sony, the studio that controls the earlier Dark Skies title would allow it to take place. (You can bet this wouldn’t happen to Star Trek.) But the question before us is whether or not the new film, by virtue of boldly original content, has a legitimate claim to make the title its own, or if it’s just a Johnny-come-lately that doesn’t have the chops to be the champ.
Dark Skies (2013), the recently released horror film from writer-director Scott Stewart, is the story of a typical suburban family, the Barretts. Lacy (Keri Russell, now starring in the FX series The Americans) is a real estate agent trying to keep her family afloat as her husband, Daniel (Josh Hamilton), looks for work. The kids seem typical, too. Older brother Jesse reads Sam bedtime stories over their walkie-talkies. When strange things start happening after bedtime, Lacy starts to worry that Sam’s nightly visitor, The Sandman, might be more than an imaginary friend. Problems escalate through terrifying scenes reminiscent of earlier films: Paranormal Activity, Poltergeist, The Birds — we see echoes of all of them here, and we’re reminded why those films live on, lurking in the shadows of our imaginations.
To the neighbors, the Barretts look crazy. Police are called but find no evidence of forced entry. As more and more seemingly random events threaten her family’s safety and sanity, Lacy begins to realize that some other-worldly, malevolent force is after her son.
Unlike other films that have tried to capitalize on the alien abduction mythology (Signs, The Fourth Kind, etc.), Dark Skies doesn’t treat the aliens as a supernatural force or a worldwide threat. Here the threat is very personal, like an intruder breaking into a home. The aliens are silent observers whose real agenda is unknown. The effect is very disturbing.
The Defending Champion
The television series Dark Skies (1996) has horrifying aliens too, but it’s really pure science fiction drenched with a highly aware, socio-political world view. Set in the turbulent 1960s, the twenty-hour series follows a young idealist named John Loengard (Eric Close, who later became a regular in TV’s Without a Trace and the current Nashville), as he takes a new position on Capitol Hill.
Asked to investigate the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, Loengard eventually learns the truth about extraterrestrials living in our midst and is recruited by an agency known as Majestic to help cover up the facts. When his girlfriend, Kimberly Sayers (Megan Ward), is abducted by the aliens, the stakes escalate precipitously.
Series co-creators Bryce Zabel and Brent V. Friedman do an impressive job interweaving American history and ufology with a healthy dose of conspiracy theory. (Full disclosure: Zabel created and owns Movie Smackdown, and the use of his title on the new film has obviously caused him some consternation.) Their series ran for one season on NBC and remains a cult favorite today, re-imagining the greatest (and saddest) events of the 1960s through the lens of an alien conspiracy.
Despite its science fiction trappings, Dark Skies (2013) is actually a horror film. Stewart’s story builds its characters first and then slowly layers in its horror elements. It’s not a scare-fest that relies on things jumping out at you to provide a cheap adrenaline rush. Rather, it comes across more like a true story, which is what makes it so frightening.
When Daniel installs cameras throughout the home to try and catch their intruder on film, Dark Skies feels vaguely similar to the Paranormal Activity franchise, with which it shares at least one key member of its creative team, producer Jason Blum. Thankfully, it avoids the documentary style that has been so prevalent in horror since The Blair Witch Project hit theaters in 1999.
From a ufology point of view, the film offers one of the best representations of an expert I’ve seen. J.K. Simmons does a great job as a reluctant authority on alien abduction. Rather than paint him as a crazed believer or an uptight skeptic, filmmaker Stewart gives us a man changed by his own experience who tries to help others dealing with similar circumstances.
Dark Skies (1996) also does something groundbreaking for a TV series of its time. While other shows were taking audiences on treks to the stars, Dark Skies focuses on events here at home, creating an alien threat to our way of life. That notion may have been attempted before in individual episodes of The Twilight Zone and the original The Outer Limits, but never had it been explored as a full-length series. Zabel and Friedman transcend the genre by using well known UFO lore from Roswell to Area 51 to help create an alternative American history that is both unsettling and wholly plausible.
As John Loengard says in the series opening, “History, as we know it, is a lie.” By setting their show in the 1960s, the creators force viewers to re-examine recent events in the light of a very disturbing new perspective, suggesting that instead of communists or counter-culture revolutionaries, perhaps we should have been worried about a much more insidious threat. Dark Skies was the first television series to suggest that all those people seeing UFOs weren’t crazy. It takes the approach that there’s something that has been hidden and needs to be disclosed.
While the series utilizes the words “Dark Skies” as part of a passcode between protagonist Loengard and others, there’s no clear reason why the film uses its title — other than, possibly, to capitalize on the small but hardcore audience of the earlier series. In its one full season on the air, Dark Skies cemented itself with a cult following, and it still resonates a decade and a half later. In a world where national security threatens to destroy personal privacy, the story of this television series remains both relevant and engaging.
It’s clear that Dark Skies the film and Dark Skies the television series are two very different works. Though they both use aliens and ufology as the starting points for their stories, they take two very different directions. As a work of horror, the 2013 film builds on tried and true elements from genre classics to create an effective and unnerving story that makes alien abduction all too real. By contrast, the 1996 series does something wholly original, combining American history, conspiracy and ufology into a single compelling narrative. Both tell good stories, but only one has an original idea in its head. Which is why this Smackdown win goes to the series, Dark Skies (1996).