I must admit that the teaser for Skyline, the new sci-fi action film helmed by AvP: R directors Greg and Colin Strause, actually caught me off-guard when I first saw it, in that it actually looked like something that might be worth plunking down my hard-earned money for. That final nightmarish shot of hundreds of Angelenos being sucked up en masse into a giant alien spacecraft (we can dream, can’t we?), their screams echoing eerily over the soundtrack, left me wondering if the Strauses had, against all odds, managed to craft something truly unique in Hollywood: an alien invasion film (one made for a reported $10 million, no less) with something new and interesting to show us. The answer? Mmm, nah, not really.
Sure, the Brothers succeed in pulling off some truly impressive visuals (outside of one, shall we say, ill-advised slo-mo shot), made even more so by the relative shoestring with which it was all put together. But the story itself, which revolves around a rather standard-issue cast of attractive young adults in the city (hello, Cloverfield), ends up being anything but extraordinary. Our two main characters are Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson), who have come to attend the birthday party of Jarrod’s best friend Terry (Donald Faison) at his penthouse in a luxurious L.A. high rise. Terry, a successful visual effects artist (sound familiar?), is a shallow alpha male type living the good life with his beach-bimbo girlfriend Candice (Brittany Daniel), a…uh, shallow alpha-female type whose main purpose in life appears to be acting like the most obvious imaginable cliché of every spoiled, bitchy princess type from the last 30 years in cinema. In other words: how long, exactly, are we going to have to put up with these assholes before they’re sucked up into that giant spaceship?
Ok, so in all fairness I get that we’re supposed to care about Jarrod and Elaine (who seem like pretty decent folks), and Balfour and Thompson, respectively, acquit themselves the best they can with severely underwritten roles. But their characters are really secondary in this $10 million answer to the Michael Bay “ let’s-blow-some-stuff-up-real-good” school of filmmaking, which is what makes Skyline, for all its economic ingenuity, come off like…well, like the $10 million answer to Independence Day (i.e. we get Donald Faison instead of Will Smith). And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – it’s just not a very interesting way to go.
There’s no denying that the aliens themselves are impressive creations: first as they descend from the sky in giant, bio-mechanic ships that emit an oddly beautiful blue light to lure their prey outside before vacuuming them off the face of the Earth; later as they break off into smaller life-forms (some resemble floating octopi, while others are hammer-headed juggernauts that hulk and pounce) to hunt down the few remaining survivors who’ve managed to resist the hypnotizing glow. What the Strauses have achieved effects-wise, from the home base of their Los Angeles studio Hydraulx, is truly stellar given the budget; these are, for the most part, top-notch visuals to rival those of any big-studio film.
But it’s the Brothers’ visual ingenuity (there’s a particularly stellar sequence on-board one of the alien spaceships late in the third act) which makes one wish even more that they possessed the same acumen for simply telling a good story; it’s not all their fault, though, since they didn’t actually write it. No, the scribes in question are Joshua Cordes and Liam O’Donnell, first-timers whose characters and dialogue are strictly obligatory; at no time do we genuinely feel for any of these people, strain as the actors might for some deeper resonance. Indeed, outside of some generic “relationship issues” that pop up between the two central couples (a romantic rivalry, the revelation of a pregnancy), there’s just not much for the poor thesps to sink their teeth into.
Interestingly, Skyline is actually the second low-budget sci-film film to enjoy a theatrical release in the last month; Monsters, helmed by first-time director Gareth Edwards (also with a visual effects background), has likewise received quite a bit of attention for what it was able to achieve on an incredibly small amount of money (in its case a total of about $500K). But when you look past the superficial similarities it’s no surprise that Skyline, containing a much higher ratio of style over substance than Monsters, is the one enjoying the bigger marketing and distribution push (style over substance being Hollywood’s stock-in-trade). Let me give you the most accurate summation I can think of: Monsters is a film about people that has aliens in it; Skyline is a film about aliens that has people in it. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one is more worthy of your time.