Tuesday, March 29, 2011
CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Skyline (2010)
Purportedly the first in a sci-fi film franchise by the Brothers Strause (AVP: Requiem ), the 2010 alien invasion movie Skyline (2010) is literally a wonder to behold.
Unfortunately, I mean that description in both the positive and negative senses.
The film's amazing special effects sequences re-define "shock and awe" ably, with Los Angeles falling under siege from impressive alien ships for most of the film's running time. Without reservation, I can state that the Brothers Strause execute some jaw-dropping, gorgeous shots of extra-terrestrial attack in the film, and more importantly get across some authentically powerful ideas about what it might feel like for the average Earther to suddenly awaken to, well, planetary regime change.
Yet for each great effect, and each great concept featured in Skyline, there's also the undeniable sense that the movie's narrative is developmentally arrested. In particular, the film's first half-hour is a long, slow haul through screenwriter hell as shallow rich people talk about nothing, argue about nothing, and generally act like narcissistic reality-tv show personalities.
If human life in 2010 is really this inconsequential, really this petty, really this shallow, then go ahead and bring on the brain eating aliens; that's all I can say.
When the going gets tough, the tough just get indecisive in Skyline, and the not-very-likable young characters endlessly argue the merits of staying in one place to hide, or making a run for it in broad daylight. It's this terminally uninteresting and extended case of -- cue The Clash -- "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" that makes the film feel not only enormously frustrating for the viewer, but which makes the storyline feel terminally stalled. An alien invasion is happening outside a high rise apartment, and for much of the film, the protagonists just hide in their room, peeking out timidly and arguing the same point. Stay or go? Go or stay?
After awhile, you just want the characters to do something, anything, to move the plot forward.
Don't You Get it? We're at War
In Skyline, Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his girlfriend, Elaine (Scottie Thompson) visit Jarrod's friend, Terry (Donald Faison) in Los Angeles after he has become a success in the movie industry, specifically in special effects.
Meanwhile, Terry is cheating on his girlfriend, Candice (Brittany Daniel) with his assistant, Denise (Crystal Reed). At the same time, Jarrod and Elaine argue because Terry has offered Jarrod a job there in California, and she doesn't like L.A. Elaine is also "late" and informs Jarrod that she is pregnant with his child.
After a night of celebration, the group awakes at 4:27 am to witness a blinding blue light outside the windows of Terry's high-rise apartment building. Anyone who looks at the light is mesmerized by it, and "sucked" outside. Jarrod narrowly survives this fate when Terry pulls him back from the precipice.
Some time near dawn, Terry and Jarrod head to the roof to see what is happening outside, and learn that the blue flares are present all over the city. Worse, at every instance of the unearthly illumination, unsuspecting humans are being drawn high up into the air, into the bellies of strange, bio-mechanoid spaceships.
An escape attempt goes wrong as aliens invade the city, and Terry is abducted by one of the invaders. Later, the survivors join up with the apartment manager, Oliver (David Zayas), and watch from Terry's apartment, as the U .S. Air Force engages the alien ships in combat. The battle ends with the U.S. forces decimated, and an alien ship nuked. Unfortunately, the extra-terrestrial ship rises triumphantly from the mushroom cloud and begins to re-assemble and regenerate itself.
Jarrod, who is feeling strange effects from his first encounter with the blue light, leads Elaine to the roof, in hopes that an Army helicopter they witnessed earlier will return and rescue them. After another pitched battle, Elaine and Jarrod are captured by the aliens as well. As they are sucked up into the sky, they share a tender, final kiss.
Meanwhile, all over the world, the human race falls to the alien blitzkrieg. Aboard one ship, Elaine watches as the strange aliens remove and then absorb human brains. But there's something different about Jarrod's brain...
They're not dead. They're just really pissed off.
Skyline has received really terrible reviews from most film critics, and certainly there are reasons why that's been the case. But before I delve into the film's many valleys in quality, allow me to take a moment to examine the film's creative summits.
First of all, Skyline does a surprisingly effective job of introducing and maintaining the mystery of the extra-terrestrial incursion on Earth. Many War of the Worlds-type films open with alien saucers and war machines arriving, and then decimating the Earth with energy beams that we recognize as variants of lasers; variants of our technology. Then, the aliens send in the ground troops (Battle LA, which I haven't seen), and combat on terra firma ensues.
Here, the Brothers Strause go another, more intriguing route. They introduce alien technology that feels, well, legitimately alien, or at least unfamiliar to us. The blue light that comes down to hypnotize and catch humans is actually a pretty creepy device, and tremendously powerful in forging terror in a surreal, nightmarish fashion. As one character rightly notes, "who wouldn't want to look at something so beautiful?" The idea is that the blue light suffuses an area of the City, and curious humans -- by their very nature -- are drawn to gaze at it. Of course, if that happens, it's too late and the aliens have you.
The second part of the alien attack equation, also splendidly visualized, involves human bodies being drawn upwards into the underbelly of the mecha-organic spaceships. At least early on, the film doesn't over-do this view or special effect and again, real terror is generated. We catch two or three glimpses of hundreds of human beings -- seeming to defy gravity -- pulled up through the air in a terrible cluster. It's an odd, incongruous and disturbing inverse image of what our nation witnessed on that horrible day, September 11, 2001. There, bodies plummeted down to the ground from the heights of the World Trade Center. But this opposite image -- with bodies sucked skyward by some alien force -- nonetheless resonates. It seems both frighteningly recognizable and absolutely, horrrifyingly un-real. It is a defiance of the Laws of Physics as we understand them; but that's just fine because the source is alien.
My point here is that any alien force with the high technology to get to Earth from another solar system would also likely possess weapons of invasion far in advance of anything we could accurately imagine or comprehend. They wouldn't come with bullets and missiles and machine guns. Instead, the alien arsenal would likely be terrifying, extremely efficient and wholly alien to us. For all of its myriad flaws in storytelling, Skyline really broadcasts this idea dramatically.
The alien ships themselves -- in all their various and sundry iterations -- are a wonder to behold too. They seem to be an unholy combination of machine, squid and insect, literally swimming through our skies, seeking out prey. Once more, the special effects are downright amazing; so much so that the reality of alien siege is immediately and viscerally established. Looking at the alien tech, you can readily believe that these beings and their machines could dominate our world in a mere three days.
And even here -- in the pitting of alien tech against human tech -- Skyline gets a few things right. About mid-way through the film there's an extraordinary battle between our unarmed drones and the alien ships. There's a stealth bomber, armed with nukes, in the mix as well. In most alien movies, an aerial attack like this would be a total rout, with the Earth forces repelled and destroyed, and nuclear missiles rendered ineffective immediately. Skyline treads a more original path, and really gives the audience hope that the human counter-attack is going to work. The drones and the Stealth bomber acquit themselves well, and the nuclear missile takes down the alien ship, smashing it to pieces.
And then -- again -- we see something really alien occur. The vessel starts to regenerate itself; literally pulling pieces back together from the scattered debris. In alien invasion movies such as this, we're accustomed to invisible force fields that protect alien saucers or such, but here, just a little twist, a ship picking itself up and re-assembling, gives the impression of something new, that we haven't seen a dozen times.
I can't fault the Brothers Strause for their imagination or execution of the aliens featured in the film; they do a terrific job in this arena. I just wish that these skilled special effects experts had devoted as much energy and imagination to the human and narrative elements of Skyline.
For instance, as Skyline reveals, the giant monsters from outer space are here to rip out our brains and, well, eat them up. That is an incredibly hoary idea, and one you couldn't get published with in this century. But more to the point, it doesn't make a lot of sense. The aliens come to our planet to steal and use our brains as a power source (think of the A.I. in The Matrix  co-opting our bodies as batteries...), but how does a culture from somewhere in a solar system or galaxy far, far away design and build its tech around something found, ostensibly, only right here on Earth?
Before they got here to eat our brains, how did they move their incredible machinery from their planet to ours? I appreciate the idea that the aliens are here on Earth to rob a precious resource, but the whole brain angle plays as pulpy, simplistic, and unconvincing.
Also irritating is the fact that probably nine-tenths of the human race in Skyline go through exactly the same process as Jarrod, and yet he is the only person who begins to develop, ahem, alien powers that come in handy during the finale. We see Elaine go through the same procedure in the film as well -- the blue light -- but she isn't changed or altered as Jarrod is. So is he just a fluke, or -- again like The Matrix -- is he The Chosen One? The guy with the power to save all our brains?!
Someone might note at this point that all these questions could be answered handily in the inevitable sequel. That may be true; but as a standalone Skyline still plays as a bit...stupid. And the sentimental, senselessly romantic moment in which Jarrod and Elaine share an intimate kiss inside the alien light stream (as they are hundreds of feet in the air...) adds to the feeling of general dopiness.
That grandiose, romantic kiss in mid-air isn't earned by Skyline because the characters mostly come across as petty and mercurial, capricious and arbitrary in their concerns. In the first half-hour, they argue over nothing of consequence. Elaine is angry that Jarrod is offered a job in L.A. Is that his fault? He could still turn it down. But she's needlessly mopey and hostile about it. When he asks her why she didn't tell him she is pregnant, she replies that she didn't want to ruin his trip to California? Really? Then why has she been such a bitter pill to deal with since setting foot on the tarmac?
Later in the film, Elaine is malleable and changeable to the point of comic absurdity. Elaine argues that the survivors should stay and hide in the apartment, but lets herself be dragged outside by Jarrod, and disaster ensues. Later, she continues to argue that it is best to stay inside for the time being. At this juncture, Jarrod's eyes turn milky and his blood vessels turn dark -- a telltale sign of the alien influence -- and he argues again that they should go outside and attempt to rendezvous with an army chopper. Jarrod and Oliver fight, and Jarrod says that he is not leaving his "family" behind.
This alien/emotional outburst miraculously changes Elaine's mind, and she willingly goes outside, to the roof, with Jarrod when she was just arguing the opposite course of action. So tell me: if your significant other began evidencing signs of physical alien takeover, would this make you more or less likely to follow his lead? Would you change your mind or stick to your guns?
So much of Skyline plays like that bizarre moment. The screenplay is not merely nonsensical, it's anti-sensical, if that's a word. For instance, early in the film Jarrod notes that the aliens aren't hovering over the marina, so they should get out on the water pronto. All the sudden, I had visions of Signs (2002), and water-fearing alien invaders. But here, the idea is left entirely undeveloped. Why aren't there any ships over the water? Is it a coincidence? Or is Jarrod actually onto something? The movie never, ever decides; it just sort of floats the idea of water as a sanctuary, so the survivors have something to further argue about before dying.
Another difficult to swallow plot element involves Elaine's pregnancy. While carrying a child in her womb, Elaine gets exposed to alien takeover light, gets grabbed and squeezed by an alien bio-mechanoid arm, and is contaminated by the fall-out of a nuclear bomb in close proximity. All this occurs before she is air-lifted and yanked hundreds of feet and sucked into an alien spaceship.
That's one tough baby she's still carrying in the film's last scene, let me tell you.
Moment by moment, scene-by-scene, Skyline piles absurdity and frustration upon absurdity and frustration. People look directly at nuclear blasts and don't go blind. Nor, in close range, do they get radiation sickness. Alien probes can climb stairs to reach the roof, but don't stop to check individual rooms where the survivors are hiding. A lighter doesn't light at a crucial moment, and then, at another crucial moments does light. A character named Oliver lectures Jarrod about survival ("The city's a vacant lot...we need to survive") and then turns around and commits suicide when he could have just run out of the room and escaped an alien threat entirely.
Again, not just nonsense, but vehemently, proudly, courageously anti-sense. That's Skyline in a nutshell.
Still, "beggars can't be choosers," as one character in the film notes. At least in Skyline you can actually see the action, which differentiates it from the Strause Bros.' previous, horrible outing, AVP: Requiem. That movie was so dramatically under-lit, you just kind of gave up half way through.
On the other hand, actually seeing the impressive action in Skyline gets one's hopes up that the movie's storyline is going to prove as powerful and affecting as the awe-inspiring special effects. And the Strause Bros. just don't pull it off. After we finished watching the film, my wife was silent and I asked her what she thought.
Her answer was a quote from the movie's hilariously bad dialogue: "I'm not dead, I'm just really pissed off."
That made two of us.