Former visual effects artist Scott Stewart has not had a lot of luck in film directing to date, having helmed 2010’s astonishingly incompetent Legion as well as the drab vampiric actioner Priest the year afterwards. With this in mind, another filmmaking effort from Stewart sounds about an enticing as a kick to the genitals, but 2013’s Dark Skies shows that the director has improved in his two-year absence. This is an intense, taut thriller, exhibiting a thick sense of atmosphere and a storytelling sleight of hand that nobody previously assumed Stewart was capable of. And despite being touted as being from the producer of Paranormal Activity, this is not a found footage production. Thank God.

In the suburbs, Daniel (Josh Hamilton) and his wife Lacy (Keri Russell) have fallen on hard times, with Daniel struggling to find a job after being out of work for some time. Their usual routine is interrupted when strange things begin happening around their home during the night, with photos vanishing from frames and kitchen items being mysteriously stacked, placing suspicion on the couple’s sons, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett). Hoping to uncover the source behind the madness, security cameras are installed and the parents conduct research, which leads them to believe that extraterrestrials might in fact be responsible for the mysterious happenings. For help, they turn to alien expert Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), whose words are not as comforting as they would have liked.

It’s for the best that Stewart was working with a scant $3.5 million budget, as opposed to the $26 million sum used to produce Legion or the extravagant $60 million budget for Priest. The budget helps by limiting the scope, compelling Stewart to focus on tension and mystery, rather than dumb money shots. Dark Skies is an extraordinarily intense thriller, relying on what is unseen to create a sense of menace and threat. Moreover, while there are a few jump-scares, Stewart’s efforts do not feel lazy, as there are some unsettling set-pieces and images in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Also keeping us interested is the fact that Daniel and Lacy are a likeable, believable pair, with both actors selling the illusion that they are husband and wife. It hits hard to watch them distress over their various troubles, and you will want them to find a way out of their financial issues and halt the aliens before real damage is done. Acting is not usually a strong suit in thrillers of this ilk, but Russell and Hamilton truly hit it out of the park. Stewart gave the performers layered people to play, and the pair make it work. Luckily, Goyo and Rockett are just as impressive as the kids, while Simmons disappears into his role and always commands attention.

It’s hard to overstate the effectiveness of the initial hour or so of Dark Skies, with the escalation of events – flocks of suicidal birds flying into the family’s house, Lacy losing hours in a day, Daniel’s nose bleeding profusely, unknown markings on the boys’ bodies, and so on – building a sense of anticipation, while Simmons’ big scene to shine reveals answers and connects the dots in a riveting fashion. Sure, the narrative does resemble Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Stewart develops a unique personality for the picture. However, the script is not airtight; during the climax, for instance, the family willingly split up despite being told that they can protect themselves through family unification. Added to this, there are a number of cheesy moments, most notably involving the token sceptics – we have cops and technicians who roll their eyes and give silly explanations for crazy stuff. Admittedly, people like that would probably exist in a real-life alien situation, but the actors are too hammy.

While the climax is effective, Dark Skies‘ ending is dopey and ridiculous, introducing an unnecessary twist and closing on a cliffhanger that makes the experience feel unsatisfying on the whole. It’s an underwhelming payoff to a patient thriller, taking the production down a few notches. Still, in spite of its scripting flaws, Dark Skies remains a perfectly serviceable picture for a Friday evening. Its sci-fi aspects are interesting and it’s extremely creepy from time to time. To see a movie of such skilful construction from Stewart is exciting indeed, making this reviewer wonder why Dark Skies was so maligned by the critics.

7.1/10