Low-budget genre films are a long and hallowed tradition in movie-making, but unfortunately the tradition also includes most of them being terrible. The new alien-invasion film Skyline has quite a few interesting ideas, and as a demo reel for special-effects technicians, it is a rousing success, but it also proves that proficiency with pixels doesn’t necessarily translate to actual storytelling skill.
Eric Balfour (frequent TV actor, currently playing the third lead on the SyFy show Haven) stars as Jarrod, an artist from New York who travels to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Elaine (Scottie Thompson), to attend the birthday party of his childhood friend Terry (Scrubs veteran Donald Faison), who owns a successful special-effects house. The group, which includes Terry’s wife Candice (Brittany Daniel), parties well into the night, and while they’re trying to sleep it off aliens invade the Earth.
The aliens have these brilliant beams of blue light that draw people in, and suck them into the mother ship. Then they send smaller ships around to round up all the stragglers. Faced with all this, the characters hole up in Terry’s penthouse apartment along with the building’s manager, Oliver (Dexter’s David Zayas), and look out the window (through a conveniently-placed telescope) at the mayhem occurring outside.
The filmmakers have obviously seen Cloverfield, though they ditch that movie’s found-footage gimmick. They give us the events of an Independence Day-style alien invasion film from the point-of-view of some regular people who make a couple of escape attempts but really just want to hide out from the alien apocalypse and save themselves.
The idea is an interesting one, but when so much of the movie is passive, with the characters literally looking out of their window at what is going on, then in order to keep the film from feeling inert and dull, there really needs to be some interesting characters and relationships, but the script by Joshua Cordes and Liam O’Donnell is utterly uninterested in that. The characters here are thin to the point of transparency, and any conflicts they are given add up to nothing. Elaine is revealed to be pregnant, but it doesn’t deepen her character any; we just become a little more concerned whenever she has to flee the aliens. Another character is revealed to be cheating on his wife, but it is hardly brought up again.
I may not like Balfour, who inexplicably gets a lot of work despite leaving a charisma-shaped hole in any project he appears in, but his lank and uninteresting performance here can be blamed as much on the hollow script as Balfour himself. Even the talented actors on hand, such as Faison and Zayas, don’t make much of an impression when burdened with this material.
The film does have some interesting images— hundreds of screaming people being sucked into spaceships, aliens who seem to run on human brains like AA batteries—but they don’t add up to much of anything, and the film that surrounds them ends up feeling like an afterthought. Everything is done in service of getting to the next effects sequence as quickly as possible with only the briefest nod to the human stories being told.
The filmmakers actually do make some rather bold choices, including an admirably gonzo ending that reaches for the stars but fails spectacularly, but they don’t base these moments on any sort of story or emotions that we care about, so we don’t care one way or another if the big moments fail.
All this attention to the effects makes a bit more sense if you know that Hydraulx, the company that produced the film, is primarily a special-effects house that has decided to make the leap into production, doing everything in-house. Even the writers were former special-effects technicians. The film’s budget is listed at $10 million, and while the characters’ point of view is limited, the effects are never less than terrific. It doesn’t work at all as a story, but Skyline serves as an interesting business model for future indie genre films. If the people who make them remember to pay some attention to the human elements of the story in addition to the special effects, some interesting projects could result.
The directors, Colin and Greg Strause, bring a nice visual style to the film even during the scenes that don’t rely on special effects. The film may be a mess, but the Strause brothers deserve credit for improving since their debut film as directors, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, which was as inept and wrongheaded as any film I can think of.
Despite a few interesting moments, Skyline fails thoroughly as a story, but it serves ably as a vehicle for some great special effects. This method of producing everything in one place, from script to special effects, could serve as an interesting way to get some real independent visions out there in genre film, but only if the filmmakers remember to include some flesh-and-blood humans to go along with all the effects.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.