Skyline (2010)

Review first published by EyeforFilm.

In the wee hours of the morning in a Los Angeles penthouse that was the scene of a party the night before, Elaine (Scottie Thompson) wakes and staggers, still half-asleep, to the bathroom to throw up. Returning to bed, she notices that the room is shaking, and that a strange blue light is seeping through the shutter’s slats. She wakes her boyfriend Jarrod (Eric Balfour), and as a scream is heard from the adjoining room, he rushes out, only to be drawn hypnotically towards the open window by the blue light, his skin rippling under its intense beam.

Now anyone who has seen Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – or the trailer for Skyline – will know that this home-invading siren light can mean only one thing: aliens. Yet what is more interesting about this film’s prologue is the way that it makes the beginnings of the invasion coincide with Elaine’s morning sickness. For as the action cuts to 15 hours earlier, it will become apparent that Skyline is dealing with more than one kind of alien invasion.

For a start, we see Jarrod and Elaine flying into LA on a plane from New York – East Coast strangers to all the Californian sun, smiles and sin. The occasion for this visit is the birthday of Jarrod’s childhood buddy Terry (Donald Faison) – who now wants his New York friend to join his VFX effects company (and playboy lifestyle) in LA. Elaine, however, whose first words to Jarrod on the plane were: “You haven’t changed a bit”, would prefer her boyfriend to do some growing up – not least because she is pregnant. “That’s why you’re my hero,” she says when she sees Jarrod helping a single mother get her luggage down. And so, in the 15 hours between their own and the aliens’ arrival in Tinseltown, we see Jarrod caught in a dilemma, forced to decide whether to keep hanging out with his homeboy, or to become a responsible, dedicated father. It is a dilemma that the alien invasion will bring into sharp focus.

Jarrod is going to change, all right, with some rather alarming physical transformations there to underscore his gradual shift in mindset – and although many critics have reserved special scorn for the apparent arbitrariness of this film’s final sequence, its images, however defamiliarised, of paternal protectiveness are entirely of a piece with all that has preceded. Indeed, the entire invasion might even be read as a vivid anxiety dream about the alienating impact of birth and parenthood – a dream that visits Jarrod as he lies asleep in Terry’s top floor apartment a few hours after learning that he is to be a father. After all, most fathers-to-be will be familiar with that feeling that the world as they know it is about to end. It is perhaps not without significance that in the middle of the nightmare that follows, the building’s concierge (David Zayas) will tell Jarrod: “You better wake up.” Yet whether this is all a dream or not, Jarrod will certainly wake up a different man.

It is worth focusing on this, the film’s thematic core, because once the invasion proper begins, events move fast and furiously, and it is easy to forget what engendered all the extra-terrestrial mayhem, large-scale abductions, mid-air dogfights and last-ditch nuclear attacks. Skyline has received a lot of negative press for being both a brainless exercise in connect-the-dot genre games, and a spectacular lightshow with little credible dialogue or characterisation. This is a little unfair. For while characterisation is rarely the strong point of alien invasion flicks, the truly minimal approach adopted by Skyline should, in fact, be counted as an asset.

Here the utter ordinariness of the human players is foregrounded, the clutter of backstory is avoided, and all the usual expositors (scientists, media pundits, military types) in this kind of film are conspicuous only by their absence. All that matters is the immediate action of the invasion itself, and the different reactions of the various players – who, much like filmviewers, risk surrendering their brains if they stare too long at all the flickering lights. In fact, all those monstrous manifestations and desperate battles can be seen, precisely, as expressions of Jarrod’s inner torments. Here action is character.

Meanwhile, although Skyline wears its many influences on its sleeve – from Cloverfield (2008) to War Of The Worlds (2005), from Independence Day (1996) to District 9 (2009), from Starship Troopers (1997) to Signs (2002), and from The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) to Mars Attacks! (1996), via a bunch of siege-based zombie flicks – this complex constellation of allusions leads to a series of narrative surprises and double takes that even the largest of telescopes would fail to see fully from a distance. With its lack of a big-name cast, and the Strause brothers’ proven willingness to embrace bleakness (see their not entirely dissimilar 2007 directorial debut, Alien Vs Predator – Requiem), Skyline holds out – and then fulfils – its promise of anything goes, from the mesmerising intro to the bitter, bananas end. A sequel is in development, but it is anyone’s guess where you could go next from a finale like this one.

For all the censure that Skyline has had to take from reviewers, what everyone seems to agree that Colin and Greg Strause have got absolutely right are its spectacular and imaginative special effects, which make this $10 million independent film look better than many movies made for 15 times as much, and transform the familiar LA skyline into a massive, event-filled battlefield. It helps that, like Terry, the Strause brothers have their own Los Angeles-based VFX firm, called Hydraulx, which has provided CGI for the likes of Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and 300. While most of the shooting was done literally ‘in-house’ in and around Greg Strause’s own Marina del Rey condominium, affording an unusual perspective on the apocalypse from a room with a view, more than 900 visual effects are deployed to bring to life an armada of space invaders that seem truly alien in their irreducible blend of organic and technological forms.

Brought from the script stage to completed post-production in a mere 11 months, and made for a relatively modest budget given its use of sophisticated effects, Skyline stands alongside District 9 and Monsters as an illustration of what can be achieved in the digital age of independent filmmaking. This unashamed B movie holds its own in the crowded alien invasion subgenre, and boasts some of the best (and weirdest) looking on-screen creatures since The Host. It is a fearsomely fun labour of love that the Strauses should be proud to have fathered.

© Anton Bitel