I've been cautiously optimistic about Dark Skies for a few months now. Cautious because it's a new movie from the guy who made Priest and Legion; optimistic because I'm a sucker for movies about alien encounters. So when it was revealed that Dimension Films would not be screening Dark Skies for critics, it seemed confirmation that there was indeed good reason to be cautious. That didn't kill my optimism, though, it just meant I had to wait until midnight of opening day to see it.
Cut to me at two a.m., driving home and wondering why Dimension felt it had to hide it from critics. It's not a bad movie. It may not be a great one, either, but that's fine. It's a totally acceptable, spooky little film about a family who happens to be visited by aliens. The family side of the equation clings a little too closely to standard haunted house formulas (husband and wife are growing apart, father refuses to believe what's happening around him, and so on), but the visitation stuff is solid. Stewart makes inventive use of some home security cameras (don't worry, it's not found footage), J.K. Simmons is great as the alien expert they contact (he delivers a clever and instantly memorable bit of exposition explaining why the grays chose their family), and the aliens will no doubt raise the hairs on your neck. Mission accomplished.
The funny thing is, though, that by hiding the film from critics, Dimension actually created a scenario in which my late-night Twitter feed was taken over by fellow critics an hour ahead of me in New York City tweeting pictures of the non-existent lines and empty theaters for their midnight screening of Dark Skies. And it only got worse from there. Mike Ryan and Matt Singer, of the Huffington Post and IndieWire respectively, later went on to write up pieces explaining how they sat in a sparsely populated theater for nearly an hour while AMC tried to figure out why its midnight screening of Dark Skies wasn't playing. Eventually the theater gave up, refunded their tickets and sent them defeated into the cold NYC night at one a.m.
So now we've gone from an okay alien movie that would have done alright had it screened for critics to a scenario where highly trafficked sites like the Huffington Post and IndieWire are sharing pictures of empty theaters and writing jokes about how they're still not even sure it's a real movie. Sure, it's hardly a social media disaster and it won't make a dent on the film's box office in the grand scheme of things, but it was an easily avoidable flub.
Of course, trying to avoid bad reviews is only one reason a movie doesn't screen for critics. Those screenings aren't free, after all. It costs money to rent a theater and hire security and the whole nine yards, and if you're going to do that in hundreds of theaters across the country, that adds up. It could be a scenario as simple as Dimension added up all those numbers, looked at the box office tracking, and decided it wasn't worth the money. However, since even those critics who saw the film a week ago at the interview junket are embargoed on reviewing it until 6:00 p.m. tonight, it's a safe guess that Dimension had at least some fear of seeing too many green splotches on Rotten Tomatoes.
Whatever the case, it's a regrettable one. Dark Skies isn't a grand slam, but if you like horror movies about a family trying to figure out the supernatural events that start happening to them, it gets the job done. It's just unfortunate that a studio's lack of confidence in a film - whether it's in fear of critics or of accountants with an iron grip on a marketing budget - means that some people won't bother giving it a chance. If you like movies like Signs or Communion or Altered or Insidious, give it a shot. It's nice to stay optimistic about genre movies and you might be pleasantly surprised in the process.
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