Tuesday, October 4, 2011

After Far Too Long, Alien Invaders Come To Steal Our Brains: Skyline

The Good: Effects, Performance, Most of the plot
The Bad: Characters, Handheld camera work, Most of the dialogue
The Basics: Skyline is yet another intense alien invasion film that starts with a load of potential and quickly dumbs itself into an average movie.

There are very few movies I do not know about going into. Late last year, though, I was at the theater for a premiere and I noticed the name of a movie I had heard nothing about. It was Skyline and I was intrigued because I like science fiction films and I had heard nothing in advance of the film's release. Now on DVD, I was excited to get Skyline out of my local library because I have managed to go almost an entire year without reading anything about, seeing anything about or otherwise experiencing anything about this movie. As I told my wife when I sat down to watch it tonight, "I am excited; it has been so long since I went into a movie like this utterly unprepared and ready to be dazzled by whatever shows up."

Sadly, by the time the opening credits were done, I was feeling a little less enthused about my choice. When the director was listed as the Brothers Strause, I cringed. Having been going through my reviews and retagging all of them, I recognized the name from the directors of the cinematic travesty Alien Vs. Predator - Requiem (reviewed here!). But still, I soldiered on and in the case of Skyline, other than a ridiculously annoying tendency to make nauseating camera moves with the handheld camera, the Brothers Strause take very little blame for what is wrong with the film. No, most of the fault with what makes the movie bad rests with the writing from Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell.

Fifteen hours before strange blue lights begin descending into the streets of Los Angeles, Jarrod and Elaine fly to the city for Jarrod's best friend, Terry's, birthday. Terry, who is discontent with his wife and having an affair with his very efficient assistant, springs on Jarrod his need for Jarrod to move to Los Angeles to help with the business. Elaine, upset by how abrupt this is, informs Jarrod that she is pregnant, much to Jarrod's chagrin. But shortly after four in the morning, none of this matters when blue lights appear and suck away one of the group's friends and leave Jarrod mesmerized.

As the morning haze clears, the penthouse residents look down upon the chaos in the Los Angeles streets. There, they see massive ships and plethoras of humans being tractor beamed up into them. Soon, the skies are swarming with tentacled ships that look alive and Jarrod, Elaine, their friends and the manager of the complex, Oliver, are fleeing for their lives and fighting for survival. The streets have monstrous aliens and the skies have aliens and the small group is beleaguered over three horrific days.

Skyline is what most of us would expect these days out of science fiction. Instead of being anything high-minded or philosophical, it is an invasion story that has a "reality" television feel about it. The characters are supposed to be normal people when the invasion suddenly happens, leaving them out of the loop to fend for themselves. As most of us who do not have friends who live in top-story Los Angeles penthouses will attest, there is little "normal" about Terry and the initial premise of the characters in Skyline seems beyond forced. Terry is doing quite all right for himself, making his insistence that he needs Jarrod seem contrived and solely important as a method of having Elaine reveal to Jarrod that she is pregnant. This fact could pretty well be inferred by Elaine being queasy on the plane, throwing up in her first scene and could have been revealed without melodrama later on in the film, as she reveals to Terry's wife, Candice, when Candice lights a cigarette.

This leads to the fundamental problem with Skyline: the writing. The characters oscillate between abominable and idiotic, melodramatic and coldly realistic. What none of them are are people who seem to have seen a single alien invasion film. Cordes and O'Donnell write the primary characters as types and none of them are even remotely likable, save Oliver, who is easily the smartest of the bunch. Oliver is a survivor, for the most part, and he advocates practical things like laying low and avoiding the windows. But while Oliver is likable, even his character makes little sense as a few moments with Jarrod, Elaine and the others ought to have been enough for him to realize that his best chances are on his own without them.

The real travesty of writing, though, comes in simple exchanges between the characters that are written as if they have no relation to one another or are pieces of generic dialogue stock. Oliver and Jarrod confront one another and their dialogue is fractured in a way that I cringed watching it because people simply do not talk like they were talking. Moreover, they began yelling at one another things that were not issues, like how what is happening is happening and Jarrod has to get with the program. Jarrod had been scanned by the aliens at least twice at that point and had a pretty good idea that they were under alien attack. Stilted, emotionless lines that give people a chance to explode at one another and stupid overreactions, like Elaine freaking out when Jarrod doesn't have much of a reaction to her telling him she is pregnant and Jarrod witlessly asking, "Why didn't you tell me?" right after she tells him she is two weeks late is utterly idiotic.

What, then, is surprisingly not ridiculous in the film, is the fact that the acting is pretty incredible. First, Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson are pretty amazing at keeping their eye lines and reactions perfect for a slew of virtual shots. More often than not, they are looking at and reacting to things that are in no way real around them and were added in post and they look like two people reacting to being caught in the center of a pretty massive nightmare. Similarly, David Zayas has great reactions and a wonderful ability to emote, both with real people and in his own shots. Donald Faison, whom I was only passingly familiar with from his work on Scrubs (I've only caught the show once or twice) performed quite well in Skyline in that nothing he did was remotely humorous, which is a very different skill set from his long-used comic muscles.

Then there are the effects. The Brothers Strause are pretty amazing when it comes to special effects, but in Skyline it is the basic direction that makes some of the special effects less than thrilling. At a few moments, the direction is done with handheld cameras and the shaky effect is nauseating and unnecessary. People running down flights of stairs and away from giant tentacled creature/machines are frenetic enough without throwing in shaking cameras. But when the camera is still, the visual effects tell a pretty compelling story . . .

. . . except we have seen it before. The flying ships look a lot like the Sentinels from The Matrix (reviewed here!), the aliens are derivative of the creatures from ID4 and the walking ones are taken pretty much from Cloverfield (reviewed here!). Sure, the Brothers Strause have a good eye for effects, but their creature designs are so familiar that the lumbering creatures are preceded by the same deep-bass noise as the Cloverfield monster!

In the end, that is the disappointment of Skyline. It has the pieces to be something terrific and different, but it mires itself in the melodramatic and attempts at the shine instead of the substance. On DVD, there are seven deleted scenes and extended scenes as well as a pair of commentary tracks, which I could not bring myself to sit through. While I was interested in what the directors might say, I realized that anything the writers might wish to add was just going to annoy me. In the end, I decided not to torment myself. After all, the advantage of going into something blind is that I always have the capacity for the pleasant surprise. The advantage of going in with some idea at least prepares me not to get my hopes up and if my review may do that for anyone else, I'll consider the ninety minutes I spent on the film not a total wash.

For other invasion films, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
Cowboys And Aliens


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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