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Dark Skies and the Reason Alien and Paranormal Movies So Seldom Work

By Dustin Rowles | Film | February 22, 2013 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | February 22, 2013 |

Here’s what I know, and here’s what I’ve learned from watching countless movies about the paranormal, and about the supernatural, and about the afterlife, and from watching “Lost”: Explaining the mysteries of existence, of alien life forms, or of God and religion cannot be done in a satisfying way. There are scores of phenomenal films that feature aliens, ghosts, and other paranormal activity, and you can create great stories around them, extract a lot of scares, and introduce compelling conceptual thinking, but the second you attempt to provide an answer to a question that cannot be answered, you will lose your audience and your movie will fall in on itself.

“Lost” is the perfect example of this: As long as the show was creating questions, it was brilliant, engrossing, and mysterious. The second it began trying to answer them, however, it lost us. There was not a way to end “Lost” that would’ve brought anyone any real satisfaction, not unless Damon Lindelof knew something about existence that the rest of us did not. Philosophy is about asking questions and considering the hundreds of possibilities, but the minute you try to isolate a single answer is the minute you go from philosopher to crackpot. The only way “Lost” might have succeeded at all is if it had never tried to answer the big questions, ended on an ambiguous note, and left us scratching our head in perpetuity. After all, the best part about “Lost” was trying to figure out what was going on, and as long as our answers remained couched in theory, we were happy to continue speculating.

Dark Skies is an alien movie starring Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton as parents of two children who live in a house that begins to experience strange phenomena. For no particular reason, weird things begin to happen — food is strewn all over the kitchen. The burglar alarm continues to go off without any evidence of a break-in. Hundreds of birds kamikaze into their house. Then creepy things begin to happen: The family members suffer blackouts, nosebleeds, and lose chunks of time. Their bodies become covered in strange markings.

It’s slow, and it’s dull, and there’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before, but the one thing that strings us along is the not knowing: What is it? Why is this happening?

We soon find out it is aliens, and in the best scene of the film — in fact, maybe the only good scene — J.K. Simmons, who plays an expert on aliens, attempts to explain the unnatural events. There is no reason, he says. “You are not special.” It’s completely f*cking random. The best you can do is simply to deal with it.

It’s a non-answer, but it’s better than any actual answer he could’ve given. Unfortunately, the problem with a movie like this is that audiences want an answer that screenwriters are not equipped to provide. Nobody is. Yet, when audiences are not handed the answer to one of life’s greatest mysteries, they leave pissed off, but not as pissed off as if they’d been given an answer that attempts to explain the unexplainable.

Even with a non-answer, however, Dark Skies soon thereafter caves in on itself, as the family attempts to fight something that can’t be fought. At the very least, however, writer/director Scott Stevens understands that; he knows there are no answers; these things cannot be defeated with shotguns, spells, exorcisms, or the “power of love.” It doesn’t make Dark Skies an interesting, compelling, or even entertaining movie, but at least Stevens doesn’t insult our intelligence by attempting to explain the unexplainable. That I appreciated. The rest of the movie? Not so much.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.