(On Cable TV, January 2014) Astute commentators have already pointed out that stories about alien abductions now have more to do with horror than science-fiction, and Dark Skies does little more than demonstrate this with a perfect straight-faced lack of self-awareness. The story of how a typical suburban family is terrorized by alien invaders coming to abduct one of their own, Dark Skies ends up running through the motions of a formula-driven horror film with little more than competency. As the strange events pile up, coherency becomes less important than a steady drip of chills, and if writer/director Scott Stewart wisely avoids the cheapest shock tactics, what ends up on the screen is more eerie than straight-up scary. The assaulting aliens have near-omnipotent powers, making the idea of resistance a farce. Still, there’s a bit to like in the surrounding material: The portrait of a family being threatened is realistic enough in its domesticity, Keri Russell gets a good role as the mother under duress and JK Simmons makes the most out of a thankless exposition-heavy role. While the material is generally handled with a fair bit of skill, Dark Skies remains uninspired and uninspiring throughout: There’s little zest to the movie, and the results just pale in comparison with some of the better horror movies of the past few years. (For a much, much better recent family-in-peril horror thriller, see Sinister.) For genre commentators, there’s something depressing in the way SF stock elements such as abducting aliens are used as serviceable props in a mediocre horror film: but so things go when mythologies get absorbed by the mainstream.
(In theaters, May 2011) It’s not a good sign when you can feel the film’s final act locking itself into position, think “Already?”, look at your watch and find out that the film’s barely past the 65-minutes mark. There may not be all that much to say about Priest, but at least it has the decency to wrap things up in less than 90 minutes. Anything more would have been wasted, mind you: Even though the film seem very loosely adapted from a presumably richer Korean graphic novel series, there just isn’t a whole lot of plot here to gnaw upon: Setup, two dramatic confrontation and we’re already on to the third act. At least there’s a bit of eye-candy to contemplate during that time: The techno-grunge atmosphere is a bit tired, but it’s reinvigorated with the somewhat less usual industrial-western feel of the film’s middle section. Paul Bettany also gets a good role as priest with quasi-supernatural ass-kicking powers: After seeing him in so many dramatic roles (including Charles Darwin in Creation), it’s entertaining to see him re-team with Legion’s director Scott Stewart for action-movie credentials. Otherwise, well, Maggie Q is fine as another renegade Priest, Karl Urban chews scenery like he enjoys it and Christopher Plummer earns a pay-check as the face of the shallow-but-oppressive Church. But it’s all flash and pretty visuals here: no depth, little originality and even less substance. That doesn’t make it a bad film as much as it makes it a very forgettable one. The future for Priest is clear: an unceremonious DVD release, and then onward to cultural oblivion.