I wanted to see either Skyline or Unstoppable this weekend. Being acutely familiar with the Amtrak tracks in that region, both the wife and I were unable to suspend belief enough to believe a train could go through places like Emporium and Gallitzin at over 40 miles per hour without derailing, so we went with the more plausible and relatable film.
Skyline can be recommended for some purposes: the effects are obviously great, and there’s some interesting mysteries which then end up not being important. Having only the vaguest idea of what’s happening to certain characters when they start getting all veiny and milky-eyed is cool. And when we look at the alien things we can’t tell what part is organism and what part is machine, and it’s cool to speculate about just what’s going on with these things, even while everything and its various capabilities is laid out in front of us in the sunlight. The monsters don’t hide in mist, or in darkness, or around corners, which is kind of original. Criticize their methods all you want, you can’t claim they’re being sneaky, or doing anything manipulative to maximize the irony or surprise when they attack someone.
But, as it seems from the beginning, this is a demo reel for the amazing capabilities of these effects guys, isn’t it? Like the 20-minute version of District 9 that enabled Blomkamp to fund a real District 9 with things like character arcs, pathos, and suspense. Not that District 9 was one of the most subtle or soulful movies of the year, but if compared to things in its category [Repo Men? 30 Days of Night?] it sure seemed to be.
In place of character arcs, pathos and suspense, Skyline has a pregnant woman. She’s about six weeks pregnant, doesn’t want to have a child, and her partner Eric Balfour definitely doesn’t want to, so her pregnancy is logically treated as the most important thing for the world’s future. Especially after the 5 lead characters somehow decide that the aliens really really want to capture them in particular. This might be a satirical depiction of the sort of Hollywood narcissists catalogued by Dr. Drew, but the film leans more toward telling us “Yes, there are still uncounted thousands or millions of survivors of this attack in Los Angeles County, but if any alien sees evidence that these 5 narcissists* are alive, it will drop whatever it’s doing in search of them.”
Before the aliens appear, Skyline is highly reminiscent of the parts of Snakes on a Plane before the snakes appear. We’re introduced to various smug people, some a bit likeable, all of them due for a comeuppance. After the aliens appear, it becomes more serious and exciting than Snakes on a Plane, but it also turns into a showcase for two pervasive monster-movie problems.
First of all, the aliens don’t have any weaknesses, which is bad for suspense. The snakes in Snakes on a Plane had weaknesses, because they were mortal snakes indigenous to our solar system, and because the plane could eventually land, and because there was the guy played by Todd Louiso who knew what to do. The “no weaknesses” issue was a problem with Snakes on a Train, but so was everything else.
In Skyline, we can tell pretty quickly that the individual aliens are a few orders of magnitude more deadly and skillful than any human. Gunshots are hopeless, stabbing is hopeless, Eric Balfour punching them relentlessly in the cephalic carapace in slow motion is hopeless, tearing their brains out is hopeless. You could say similar things about the odds of taking down their mothership with B-22 bombers and shoulder-mounted assault weapons. This is, like I say, bad for suspense. [Trying to outwit an alien who’s in the same room as you by hiding behind a kitchen island while whispering? Really?]
Second, the obvious pointlessness of everything the characters do makes Skyline an all-time classic of the “case studies in leadership” style of lazy storytelling. Imagine you’re in a group of people, and you’re in a horrible situation, with no good options. In fact, things are going to get worse no matter what you do. One guy gets that William Wallace look in his eye and decides you all need to move to somewhere else. Other people say “Why go over there? How will that help?” And he looks at you with disdain. “Do you really want to stay here? Staying here is not an option. We’ve gotta take a chance. We can’t just stay here.” Variations on that. “Have you got any better ideas?”
Now, this leader has no idea what he’s doing, so it’s pure leadership ability and charisma that make us risk life and limb to follow him instead of risking life and limb to stay put. In a movie like this, if you have enough scenes where a character suggests a plan that will alter their chances of survival by 0.0%, and they all do what he suggests, and a chase ensues…it seems like an adventure. But in a survival horror movie…the characters’ goal is survival, not going on a Hero’s Journey. This isn’t 28 Days Later, there’s no safe zone to work towards. All this “We need to get from Point A to Point B” stuff is a fake adventure to go with the fake suspense.
I think the three male leads in Skyline use the “Have you got any better ideas? We can’t just stay here” justification at least twice each, leading to a WHOLE lot of running, walking and driving in arbitrary patterns. If they thought things through, every character would spend the whole film in a relatively safe room, peeking at what’s outside, and being menaced by blue light and flying robo-Octoroks. The guys who made this movie might not even see that premise as a potential movie, let alone know how to make it.
And the way they made it…nothing new happens between Minute 30 and Minute 90. We wonder what’s up with the blue light, then we find out, and then there’s an hour that’s all at the same level of intensity. At least it’s not an hour of shouting and gunshots and flashing lights, like in Nid de Guêpes**. It isn’t boring. The brain doesn’t check out. But as Tasha Robinson of the A.V. Club suggested, it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where everything you try winds up with the same result in the same number of pages.
Skyline has gotten some of the worst reviews of the year, which may not be fair. Presumably it’s being compared to District 9 and Cloverfield by mainstream types, who find it inferior in every way, while geek-blogger types are comparing it to Monsters and finding it inferior in every way, while also bemoaning the obscurity of Monsters and the mainstream push behind this slick mediocrity. And if any older critics are comparing it to the Skyliners’ earlier work, it really falls flat in terms of smoothly orchestrated soulful doo-wop, although Alien vs. Predator: Requiem did as well. Were everyone’s expectations too high?
Although the aliens here are utterly remote and unemotional, I thought their physical interaction with humans was as seamless as it was in District 9. On the other hand, I thought that about the scene in Hulk when the Hulk is stuck in a tunnel and the scientists are shooting syringes into his face, and I seem to be in the uninformed minority there.
Another thing, the acting is good. Obviously the characters are clichés, but only Brittany Daniel’s blonde bimbo is a total caricature, and even she, well, she’s 35 and not 25, which is slightly interesting. Neil Hopkins is great as the Steve-zahnesque comic relief guy, and there’s a nice moment with him and the personal-assistant girl [Crystal Reed] just before the alien imbroglio begins.
And the ending is pretty bleak and gripping, though utterly ridiculous. You think the end of Knowing is dark…well, this can be directly compared to that, and it makes Knowing look like Independence Day. It might be naïve to give the makers of Alien vs. Predator: Requiem credit for being uncompromising and bleak, since all they want to do is see large-scale deadly stuff happen, but I have to say the only time I was on the edge of my seat was right at the end.
* The personal-assistant girl may not be a narcissist, because she stands out among the other 4 by hardly saying anything.
** I don’t want to look pretentious by citing a French movie as the archetypal bad action film with long, incomprehensible shootouts, but it was just SO boring that I’ve avoided movies of that sort since then, so not many examples leap to mind. Actually, District 9 is another film that escalates the action too much, descending into loud chaos for a while, though not for long enough to ruin the climax.