THIS JUSTIN: The Quiet Cruelty Of Dark Skies

Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Spoilers ahead for Dark Skies.

One night in the winter of late 2012, I received a text from a girl I went to college with asking if I’d seen the trailer for the movie Dark Skies. I said I hadn’t, but I was excited because for a moment I thought she had meant Night Skies — the horror film that Steven Spielberg had written and begun production on back in the early ‘80s before scrapping the project almost entirely and turning the remnants into ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, a decidedly not horror movie (fortunately for the genre world we have a record of Rick Baker’s creature designs, and even more that can be found in his 2019 two volume memoir Metamorphosis). Alas, this was not Spielberg’s film secretly resurrected and completed. I watched the trailer, and for most of it was quietly creeped out because I am (not at all unreasonably) afraid of alien abduction movies. The last shot of the trailer, however, of Keri Russell walking unsuspectingly down a dark hallway towards the camera as the silhouette of a classic Grey style alien stands up behind her, was chilling, and it was official: I was intrigued.

This film gets a lot of shit, and I do think some of its warranted. The podcast Somewhere In The Skies recently broke it down scene by scene and one of their criticisms was that the film often left details of the plot unexplained. A common criticism is that it’s essentially Poltergeist but with aliens instead of ghosts. Another is that the film is heavy on creepy imagery that means nothing, some of which (Sammy’s eyes missing, Daniel in the backyard mouth agape staring at nothing) is kind of trope-y. My only real beef with the film is that I rarely think child actors are at all good, and this film is no different. Everything else in this film though? Effective. Terrifying even.

My main reason for finding this film so unnerving is the motivations of the aliens. The plot is simple: a family in suburbia (a wife, husband, and two sons) begin experiencing a series of eerie events: missing time, burglar alarms going off randomly in the middle of the night, inexplicable personality changes, and most alarmingly what appears to be complex patterns seemingly etched into their skin with lasers. Sammy, the younger son who is apparently the focus of the activity, begins drawing pictures of him and “the sandman,” a figure who visits him in the night.  Oh, and at several points the security system reveals gangly, large headed, hunchbacked silhouettes towering over the members of the family as they sleep. I’ll agree with the critique that this is a haunted house movie with aliens and use that as a strength in this film, because it highlights the motivations of the aliens. Namely, they’re just there to fuck with people out of cruelty. Which is so goddamned frightening it makes my skin crawl.

Fire In The Sky is often cited as the be-all-end-all of alien abduction films, and the gold standard for terror in such films. And rightfully so: it really is something else to behold. The imagery is otherworldly, the performances are convincing, and the music is creepy as hell. But like we talk about in our episode with the Final Girls, watching Fire In The Sky with the idea that the aliens are simply doing their job makes it a lot less frightening. To be fair, it’s still genuinely upsetting. But…thinking about the aliens as wizened doctors and weary workers makes it almost whimsical. There’s no malice to the aliens in this scenario. To them, Travis Walton is just another test subject who’s running around their lab causing mayhem and they’re just tired of his shit. Yes, I do believe that there is an inherent immorality to testing on live animals, and that vivisection, even when done for the greater good, is wrong. But there’s no EVIL in all caps there, no malice towards the test subjects. By no means am I defending vivisectionists, but I can’t imagine many go out of their way to cause “unnecessary” suffering in their subjects. We’re getting into sticky moral territory here but, trust me, I’m going somewhere with it.

All of this means that, to me, every scary thing the aliens in FITS do they do out of a sense of obligation towards work. Towards their jobs. In a weird way, that humanizes them. The aliens in Dark Skies, however, come off less as wrinkly doctors from beyond and more as shadowy wraiths trying to cause as much fear and emotional mayhem within the Barrett family as possible. J.K. Simmons’ character makes a grandiose moment of talking about how we cannot possibly ascertain the motives of the Greys, and I suspect this is meant to make us, the viewers, feel a sense of distance from them as characters. It’s a Lovecraftian trope to put the motivations of the antagonists as far outside of human understanding as possible, except in Lovecraft, it makes sense. In Dark Skies, I think Simmons’ reasoning actually makes the film less scary, because it still posits the Greys have a reason, albeit one we can’t understand. But to say that maybe they just enjoy inflicting pain on people pushes this film into hellishly frightening territory. Nothing about the way the Greys are acting speaks of the scientific method, aside from the weird branding as maybe a way of tracking the Barretts. Every other thing they do — unless they’re pulling some very localized and very tightly focused “Monsters On Maple Street” experiment — speaks of straight up evil. Legit malice. The blackouts, the birds attacking the house, the setting off the burglar alarms at three in the morning, the lurking about the house and scaring the shit out of everyone…this is all reeks of a meanness that isn’t present in Fire In The Sky. And at the end, when the quasi-twist of the aliens actually being after the older son Jesse is revealed, they do so in such a way that it’s almost unbelievably cruel. Instead of simply taking him, they first induce in him a hallucination of his father murdering his mother before turning the gun on himself. I can’t fathom any reason to do that to someone beyond pure spite and malice. Even a mealy-mouthed justification of “well, maybe they are doing experiments in how fear affects us!” falls short because, a) as Simmons explains, these things have a long history of abducting children and never returning them, so who the fuck knows what they do with these kids, b) these events are drawn out over the course of years, making people’s lives a living hell for that time, and c) even if the aliens were simply seeing how much a person can take before losing their minds that’s still some Mengele level bullshit. Weirdly, the film opening with the Arthur C. Clarke quote about being alone in the universe strikes the perfect chord of terror for the rest of this.

Honestly, I don’t think the film really needs to have horrific imagery to drive home this quiet and creepy message. But, guess what: it does! The first trailer featured the silhouette of a classic Grey-style alien behind an unsuspecting Keri Russell, but the finished design of the creatures that we see in the film is closer to the aliens from FITS: large bulbous head, hunched back, spindly arms and legs, and unsettlingly tall. We only ever really catch glimpses of them throughout the film, and thank Christ we never see their faces, but I think this sense of restraint adds even more of an ominous feel to the movie in that we never know where they are and when we’ll see them again. I think this scene is certainly one of the more frightening things I’ve seen in a modern horror film in some time, and the scenes at the end when we see them in silhouette are creepy as hell, but for the most part, what we’re seeing is people being afraid. And when that’s done well it’s really scary. Yes, Simmons’ Google-expert character is a little heavy on exposition, but his resigned and quietly sad explanation of why the Greys are doing this (“we don’t know”) adds to the almost existential sense of dread in this film. Let’s not forget how this movie ends: Jesse is taken by the Greys, his family is forced to move on after defending themselves against charges of murdering him, and just before the credits hit Sammy hears his older brother screaming his name from a walkie talkie. It’s incredibly grim and weird and hopeless.

I’ll end with this. A few years back, while we were getting ready to do our episode with the Final Girls on this film, I had watched it and read up on it and was quite freaked out. One spring night shortly before we recorded, I got up around two in the morning to let my dog out to go the bathroom. So, there I am: in the backyard in the middle of the night, half-asleep, cold, angry at being woken up. As I’m standing in the backyard waiting for Cocoabean do to her dog-ly business, I looked up at my bedroom window, lit from my bedside lamp, and I had a chilling though: what if, all the sudden, I see one of those spindly silhouettes step into view? I remember being instantly terrified and even though I knew it was completely irrational I was gripped with the absolutely certainty that there was an alien in my room waiting for me. Spoiler alert: there wasn’t. But the fact remains that that is the effect this film has had on me.

Justin Lore
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