Skyline Torched

“Skyline” is a new science fiction… er… a new thriller… no wait… it’s a new horror… um… action… Bah. I don’t know what the hell it is, and I don’t think it really knows either.

Frankly it’s all just a big old mess.

It starts out with an intriguing first act – a young couple out of their natural habitat, the boy being offered a break by the old pal who’s made it big in LA. The characters feel like they’re going somewhere, which just makes it all the more frustrating when they don’t.

Then the aliens arrive. At first the only thing the audience sees is a brilliant blue light. People start to vanish, and the light has a hypnotic attraction to anyone unfortunate enough to look at it directly. This is followed by an alien-free interlude in which the characters do absolutely nothing other than wring their hands and debate personality flaws. Charming, but nothing said pushes the story forward or leads to any insights about these people.

Fortunately the aliens return just in time to prevent me from clawing my eyes out. This time it’s ships. Big, seemingly biomechanical mother ships which, aside from that striking blue LCD shine, are pretty much straight out of “Independence Day” and the rest of that sub-genre of giant alien ships hovering over Los Angeles movies.

The invasion and harvesting of the human race now proceeds apace. We’ve changed gears and we’re doing the second act of “War of the Worlds” (pick your preferred version – I think the Spielberg one is better, with the exception of the screaming children – gah). Meanwhile our heroes plan their escape because the aliens apparently have some sort of phobia about hovering over water — um “Signs”? — Maybe. So these folks head for the garage, grab their cars, get as far as the garage entrance and suddenly we’re watching “Cloverfield”.

The African-America dude is the first one to get taken out. I think that might be an anti-anti-cliché at this point. Will Smith has single-handedly programmed audiences to not expect that to happen. He is promptly replaced by suitably ethnic actor in the form of David Zayas (Det. Batista of “Dexter” fame, who I will now refer to as Batista even though that’s not the name of his “Skyline” character, but since that character made about as much of an impression as a limp noodle slapped against a hunk of surgical steel we’ll just roll with it), who delivers the only memorable and enjoyable performance in the movie. Some irrelevant bystanders die horribly as we discover that…

The aliens are here to eat our brains.

Our glowing blue brains (with one exception, but we’ll get to that later).

Does this count as an idea that’s so archaic that no other filmmakers would have the balls to use it? Or is it just that the directors are so woefully uneducated about the alien-brain thing that they thought they were being original? All I can say is that by this point I was literally shaking my head in disbelief.

To make matters worse, the survivors retreat back to the same freaking condo that they’d recently vacated, hiding out like rodents. At no point does anyone do anything even remotely sensible. While this may be consistent with human nature, it just serves to point out that none of these characters are growing or adapting to the situation. I was practically screaming at them to fill up available containers with water, raid other suites in the building for food and/or weapons, try to fortify the damn place. Anything other than what they end up doing, which is having arguments that exist simply to point out that the ostensible leading man may have been physically infected by the light he was previously exposed to, and his assertion that he actually feels more powerful… Huh?

When did this turn into “The Fly”?

Well, not for long, since it’s right then that the air force finally shows up. Now we’re watching “Independence Day” again.

We intercut between a big-assed air to air battle and — the characters watching the battle on their big-screen TV. Although it’s true that the film has established that the aliens will spot you if the blinds aren’t drawn, you’d expect they have more important things on their minds at the moment as they bitch-slap the majority of the Terran defense force. So in the middle of this big battle the characters argue about watching current events on TV. This is not the time for a social comment by the filmmakers about the growing tendency for people to choose virtual experiences over real ones. I want to watch the damn dogfight!

Which is over when the air force manages to nuke the mother ship, and I groan horribly as the dialogue that follows is an almost word-for-word riff on the “we’ve won – we know how to take ’em out now” lines from “Independence Day”.

Because I know what must inevitably come next…

There’s another one of those ‘big twists’ (TM, copyright, whatever). The alien ship is actually fine – the nuke was nothing more than a flesh wound and it quickly reconstitutes itself. And I suddenly realize the other vibe I’ve been getting while I watch. It’s an echo of those other impossible-to-stop incomprehensible aliens from some TV show named “Star Trek”. The freaking aliens are big-budget Borg.

Of course, the nuke causes the drapes to fall down in the condo, and then the army arrives by chopper. This finally prompts our nominal hero to say “we can’t stay here”, while Det. Batista is all for laying low. In a penthouse. With no windows. I’m sure there are probably a couple of units in that building with windows that were facing away from the blast, but whatever.

Hero and girlfriend head for the roof and yell at soldiers, who almost shoot them but then call in a rescue chopper. Meanwhile the most irritating female whinger gets hypnotized by the aliens and lets them into the awesomely secure penthouse condo, which leaves Batista no choice but to flood the place with the still running natural gas from the stove so that the filmmakers can deprive him of a dignified end by having him nearly flub his own demise. He does ultimately manage to get off the obligatory exit quip and detonates the place, but not before we’re all sort of feeling sorry for the actor – that role just sucked, dude.

Our remaining heroes are not in good shape at this point, because we’re back in “Cloverfield”, with a gigantic alien doing its impersonation of “King Kong”, destroying the rescue helicopter and terminating the military presence with its massive ‘claws of doom’.

It’s only now that the hero really gets to do something, because we finally get the obligatory beat as he goes mano-a-mano with one of the smallest of the alien critters, and is so broken by the end of the fight that he just fucking gives up… And so does the girl… And they’re swept up into the alien ship in what should be a final embrace that signals the end of mankind. That would be a bit of a downer, but if these particular aliens did happen to invade I suspect this is exactly what would happen. As a species? Toast.

But those Strauss boys couldn’t leave well enough alone, because you can’t have everyone just die…

So suddenly we’re inside the ship, which is sort of dimly lit and rather a bit much like the goo-filled real-world of “The Matrix”. Inches away from his beloved, our nominal hero is de-brained, the unusually red-tinted glowing cortex making its way to a hungry brute of a critter that I’m not certain we’ve seen before. The girl, our only remaining survivor, is not immediately killed because she’s pregnant and this guarantees her some sort of special treatment.

The special treatment gives our hero’s awesome-red-glowing-brain (can I TM that???) time to take complete control of the alien who’s eaten him, and he leaps to the defense of his galpal, possibly saving her life. She has just managed to figure out that her boytoy is now this big ‘ol monster as… the credits roll.

Methinks the boys responsible for this disaster have big plans for the sequel.

Gawd I hope that doesn’t happen.

What’s stunning to me is that this is one of those train wreck stories that slipped by everyone who should have seen the basic problem. See, the characters never really do anything at all. They spend the entire movie reacting to events around them, and as a consequence they don’t grow, and we don’t give a damn what happens to them.

“Skyline” could have been a good movie if it hadn’t gotten caught letting circumstances dictate action, and if it hadn’t tried to be ten different movies instead of just one. It could have been a terrifying film in the same way that “Thirty Days of Night” or “Night of the Living Dead” were – about people trapped in a building and surrounded by things trying to kill them. It could have been a kick-ass action movie about a bunch of folks fighting their way out of the city. It could have been a horrifying examination of unwanted alien infestation. It could have been a lot of things, and indeed that’s what it tried to be… A lot of things.

Instead, it’s none of the above. It’s just a wretched brew of borrowed ideas and standby tropes that, while not the worst film I’ve seen this year, is far from the best. And that just makes me sad, because I really was looking forward to “Skyline”, hoping it would be a fresh take on the alien-invasion sub-genre. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch “Cloverfield” again. At least they tried…

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