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By Rick Kisonak | February 27, 2013

Not screening movies like Dark Skies for critics prior to their release is a ploy generally met with suspicion and disapproval. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at the practice. I think studios should be encouraged to go a step farther, in fact. Movies like Dark Skies shouldn’t be screened for anyone at all.

Who do these PR geniuses think they’re kidding anyway? Is there a moviegoer who doesn’t know what it means when you look for a review in the paper and instead find the words “As of press time, this film has not been screened for critics?” It’s an admission of failure. They might as well just come out and say, “This movie has been rated PG for Pure Garbage.”

That’s certainly the case with the review-wary latest from writer-director Scott Stewart, whose previous creations include derivative supernatural dabblings such as Legion and Priest. Having recycled all the tired tropes he could find pertaining to angels and vampires, he’s now decided to recycle tired tropes pertaining to aliens.

Seriously. Dark Skies is less a movie than a greatest hits collection of motifs, images and moments borrowed from decades of supernatural classics. It’s the story of a typical suburban family grappling with the recession, teen hormones and extraterrestrial home invasion.

Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton play Lacy and Dan Barrett. She sells real estate. Or tries to. He’s an architect who’s lost his job. As they get further behind on the mortgage, their marriage begins to fray and their two sons show signs of picking up on their parents’ stress. The older, Jesse (Dakota Goyo), spends time with a classmate who has access to weed. The younger, Sam (Kadan Rockett) spends time with an invisible friend he calls The Sandman.

Evidently Lacy and Dan have somehow made it to 2013 without ever seeing Poltergeist. So no red flags are raised when mysterious forces rearrange the contents of the kitchen while the Barretts slumber. I’m not kidding. If you came downstairs in the morning and your stuff had been stacked in strange towering piles, could your first thought be anything but “hey, this is just like Poltergeist; we’re outta here”?

But no. Freaky yet ridiculously familiar things occur with increasing frequency. Sam becomes possessed by The Sandman much as Regan became possessed by Captain Howdy in The Exorcist. Every now and then someone freezes with their mouth open in a circle the way characters did in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Birds smash by the hundreds into windows the way they did in, well, The Birds.

Stewart additionally samples everything from Signs to Paranormal Activity in his quest to fashion the most generic thriller ever filmed. In this, if little else, he may have succeeded. The only thing more annoying than the guy’s cinematic recycling is his lazy dependence on Joseph Bishara’s score to suggest the atmosphere of tension and dread he’s unable to generate dramatically.

Lacy and Dan are unbelievably thick but they do eventually figure out they’ve got an alien problem. In the film’s least tedious sequence they visit an expert in such matters they locate with a little help from Google. He’s a world weary fellow named Edwin Pollard. His beat covers two worlds so he’s really weary.

The great J.K. Simmons lends the character an intriguing air of resignation as he breaks it down for the hapless parents: They’ve probably come for one of the boys. They probably can’t be stopped. “The invasion already happened.”

Of course it did. Everything in this movie already happened. We’ve literally seen it all before. Stewart’s shameless. His film is stinkier than a stranded cruise ship. This is a director for whom fun and fresh ideas are alien concepts. Whatever you do, do not let him abduct your time or money.

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