Great horror movies tend to be about more than monsters and demons. Invasion of the Body Snatchers tackled American paranoia in the wake of the Red Scare. The original Nightmare on Elm Street was one of the earliest movies to acknowledge the then growing trend of divorce. The Shining, depending on whom you ask, is about alcoholism, writer’s block, white man’s burden or some combination of the three. Many of the great horror movies contain rich subtext. Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies may not be a great horror movie, but it’s a surprisingly competent film that’s almost as ambitious as any of the movies I just listed. Why do I say that? Because in writing and directing Dark Skies, Scott Stewart didn’t just set out to make a disposable alien abduction movie, he set out to chronicle the death of the American dream.
The film opens on a middle class suburb in California, and we’re immediately introduced to the Barretts, a likable, photogenic family. Lacey and Daniel Barrett (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) live with their two boys in a nice two story house with an immaculately trimmed lawn and a white picket fence. They have not one but two American flags in their front yard. They seem well-adjusted and it looks like they get along with their neighbors; the first time we see the Barretts, they’re in the midst of hosting a neighborhood cookout. If they’re not living their own idea of the American dream, they’re at least living someone’s idea of the American dream.
But everything isn’t perfect for the Barretts, because a malevolent force from outer space has taken an interest in the family. At first the lurking aliens are merely content to play pranks on the family. Lacey wakes up one night to find that the fridge had been ransacked. The next night she wakes up to find that her dishes have been removed from the kitchen cabinets and stacked on the counter in odd geometric shapes.
These, of course, are only the first in a series of clichéd scares in which Dark Skies indulges. What’s interesting, however, is how each new turn of events exposes cracks in the seemingly perfect family. Upon the family’s second alien visit, the police ask Daniel why he never turned on the home security system. He responds that he had to “cut back” on the security system.
We soon discover that Daniel is currently unemployed like so many other Americans these days, and he’s desperately looking for work. Lacey works as a real estate agent, which in this economy means that she’s essentially unemployed herself. Their financial situation answers a major question posed by the “haunted house” genre: if these people have reason to suspect something terrible is happening in their home, why don’t they just move? Here, they can’t move, because they can’t afford it, and, in any event, their financial troubles are so pressing that they barely have the energy to focus on the creepy aliens ransacking their home. Despite the smiling façade the family puts on for the neighborhood, they’re drowning in debt and they’re trapped in more ways than one.
The dilemma the family faces here resonated with me. Following my graduation from law school in 2010, I found myself unemployed for a little over a year and underemployed for an additional six months before finding full time employment. There are few things in this world more soul-sucking and dehumanizing than being unemployed. Whether you’re part of the work force or merely a student, what you do defines you. If you’re unable to contribute to society, it’s as if you have no identity. That’s just my take, and I was fortunate enough to experience unemployment without having the added burden of a wife and two kids. I’d gladly welcome being abducted by freaky aliens over ever being unemployed again.
And that’s what makes Dark Skies so interesting. The initial scares may have been ripped from the Paranormal Activity playbook, but each scare also exposes the family’s dire financial situation and their increasing isolation from the community. When Daniel finally has the home security system reinstalled and improved, he tells his Lacey they need to get rid of their cable. When their youngest son begins sleepwalking and telling stories about the strange man who visits him in his bedroom at night, Lacey suggest that they send the boy to a psychiatrist, and Daniel immediately argues that that would just be another bill he can’t afford to pay.
Eventually the aliens begin to manipulate the physical behavior of all members of the family, forcing them to suffer breakdowns in public. Neighbors begin to discover bruises and scars on the boys. The neighborhood quickly begins to ostracize the two crazy, deadbeat parents who are ranting and raving about aliens.
And the truth is that the entire family is in the midst of weathering an awful, psychological shit storm that the aliens are only partially responsible for. During one almost poignant scene, the two parents visit an alien expert played by the talented J.K. Simmons. “Why us?” asks Lacey, “What makes us so special?” Simmons merely responds that they’re not special; that the events afflicting the family are random. The Barretts may feel like they’re unique, but what’s happening to them has happened to other families and will continue to happen to other families. They could just as easily be speaking about their employment situation as their alien situation.
Soon after, the movie culminates in an explosive finale in which the aliens assault the Barrett home on the carefully chosen night of the Fourth of July. The impending arrival of invaders is announced by a nastily distorted version of “America, the Beautiful” playing over a nearby television.
Scott Stewart has constructed a very clever film. It’s a shame that the scares here weren’t more innovative, because the ideas and observations driving the film are prescient and sharp. Dark Skies is probably the first film to tackle The Great Recession in a way that is neither sentimental nor ham-fisted. It may not be the scariest film you’ll see this year, but it has more to say than any horror film you’re likely to see any time soon.