Review: 'Dark Skies' scores points for tension, loses them on lack of originality

As husband and wife Daniel and Lacey Barret witness an escalating series of disturbing events involving their family, their safe and peaceful home quickly unravels. ...

Rating: PG-13 for violence, terror throughout, sexual material, drug content and language - all involving teens

Length: 97 minutes

Released: February 22, 2013 Nationwide

Cast: Keri Russell, Dakota Goyo, Josh Hamilton, Annie Thurman, Trevor St. John

Director: Scott Charles Stewart

Writer: Scott Charles Stewart

More info and showtimes »

The standard-issue alien abduction thriller gains a few paranormal touches and a taste of the living dead in “Dark Skies,” a sometimes hair-raising riff on all the “Communions” that have come before.

It’s a passably chilling bit of nonsense that builds on the past, the tropes of the genre, and relies on them for the odd jolt and the occasional ironic laugh.

Yes, the aliens are abducting us, but only those of us who didn’t heed the warnings of “Signs.”

Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton play struggling suburbanites — she’s a real estate agent, he’s an unemployed architect — who suddenly have weird lights, weirder noises, nightly kitchen re-arranging and unseen threats to their two boys to go along with a battered marriage, long-term unemployment and a mortgage in arrears. “Dark Skies” is about how they and their confused kids handle all this.

Not very well, as you might expect.

Lacy (Russell) hears things and sees things. She’s at a loss to understand what took everything out of their kitchen cabinets and parked these things in precarious stacks, all the way to the ceiling. Daniel (Hamilton) is less credulous.

He’s fibbing to her about his job interviews, and she’s not telling him everything that’s going on at home, how little Sammy (Kaden Rockett) keeps having nightmares about “The Sand Man.”

The lies come out and the marriage earns its ugliest test when they come face to face with the impossible. The movie sinks or swims not on our belief that this is happening to them, but on the players’ beliefs, and neither adult gets frantic or worked up enough to be convincing.

At the very least, the first time Lacy spies a spindly alien from “Signs” standing over her child’s bed, her freak-out should be epic. Both actors play muted shock, not panic.

And panic was called for.

As episodes pile up — catatonic fits, mass bird collisions with their house, strange bruising on their kids (Dakota Goyo is Jesse, the oldest) that has the neighbors sure they’re nut-job child-abusers, you’d expect a mania to set in. Daniel and Lacy can only manage confusion, and solutions borrowed from “Paranormal Activity” (surveillance cameras), “Night of the Living Dead” (barricading the windows) and every other modern horror movie (Internet searches, where “The Truth,” or at least the conspiracy, is out there).

That last step delivers the movie’s most fascinating character, an “expert” (J.K. Simmons) on “visitations” whose resignation and exhaustion at their fate, which mirrors his, seems earned. Lacy and Daniel seem beaten before they start.

Visual effects man turned writer-director Scott Stewart has turned away from the “Legion” and “Priest” D-movies with their angels and vampires and patched together something of an expertly shot and cut mash-up here. He’s very good at managing tension, and the script doles out the requisite shocks at decent intervals.

But what’s missing is that “Insidious” empathy, the sense of parents terrified for their kids, a terror that the viewer should and would share — if only we’d been given more reason to care or a surer sense that they do.

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