I’ve heard the movie Skyline compared to Cloverfield, as the same movie but with better camerawork. It’s true that Skyline takes concepts from obvious influences, Cloverfield being one, but in many ways it also comes across as fresh and new. It isn’t a very good movie, though it is mostly an enjoyable ride. But the best part about Skyline is that it’s a fair benchmark for just how far special effects have come in the decade or so.
I can still remember seeing Independence Day in the theater during the summer of 1996. It was the biggest, loudest alien invasion movie I’d ever remembered seeing. I loved it. The effects were fantastic, the action was intense, and the movie was quite expensive. If Internet reports are believable, Independence Day cost around $75 Million to make. Now, that movie had much more expensive, talented actors, but remember that Will Smith was just starting his action movie career, and Randy Quaid and Jeff Goldblum have never been what I would consider A-list.
Flash forward to today, and the movie Skyline is released for somewhere in the ballpark of $10- to $20 Million. Though there are fewer scenes with special effects, the movie looks fantastic. If there is one thing bringing this movie down, it isn’t the effects. The aliens look original and complicated. The ships look huge and detailed. It isn’t perfect, there are moments where it approaches a good cut scene from a modern video game more than a fantastic modern blockbuster. But it’s amazing what an artful set of special effects wizards can come up with on a meager budget today.
That one thing bringing the movie down? The acting. It’s horrible. There isn’t a likeable character in the bunch. The movie revolves around a couple visiting friends in Los Angeles just as the alien invasion lands. The actors are all vaguely recognizable, some more than others. You’ve got the doctor friend from Scrubs. Claire’s meth-head boyfriend from Six Feet Under. Charlie’s heroin addict brother from Lost. The police sergeant from Dexter. See what I’m saying? All likeable actors, sure, but none of them are capable of inspiring empathy from the audience. Even when a major character dies, my reaction was more “Wow, I can’t believe they killed of THAT guy,” rather than, “Wow, it’s too bad he’s dead.”
The plot is standard Alien invasion fare. The aliens come for no apparent reason and start collecting humans. Their method is fairly original, though there are huge holes in the plot. The alien lure is easy to escape. You either look in a different direction, or have someone push you out of the way at the right moment. Still, the movie seems to imply that only the five or six main characters on screen have managed to figure it out. There are a few others running around the city, but Los Angeles is emptied of its population in the first fifteen minutes or so of the film.
The aliens are not content with simply collecting a couple million people. They need every last one, and so they expend what seems to be considerable resources, time and energy to find the cast of characters, who are hidden in a penthouse apartment. Of all the apartments in Los Angeles, the aliens almost instantly figure out where our heroes are hiding, and start hunting them down. So, they must have some pretty sensitive scanning equipment if they can find just the right apartment, right? Well, actually no, because they will never find you if you hid behind a sink, or close your blinds.
The Cloverfield comparisons obviously come from the claustrophobic feeling created by the minimal space the characters cover. Ninety percent of the movie takes place in that one apartment. Five percent happens in a garage in the basement, and another five percent happens on the roof. But the characters never venture fifty feet from the apartment building. In some ways, that works. It’s a very nice apartment, with plenty of open windows and a fancy telescope hooked to the large screen television.
In some other ways, it doesn’t work. One of the things I liked about Cloverfield (and I know I’m in the minority saying such a thing), is that it followed the character’s limited perspective through the entirety of New York City. You saw the subways, central park, the tall buildings, and the rest of the concrete jungle. In Skyline, you just see the apartment. Even when the characters look through the telescope, they’re either looking at at neighbors having sex (which leads to an out-of-place homophobic moment that makes the already snide characters even less likeable), or they’re looking at the giant ships hovering over the city.
Eventually, the military shows up, but it seems to be much too late to help anyone. Wouldn’t a major city like Los Angeles be worth more than a few planes and a couple rescue helicopters? Apparently not. Though the military makes a good attempt, they ultimately show up under-prepared for no good reason. Like with Cloverfield, you start to get a feeling that the situation is inescapable for the main characters. That doesn’t make for a compelling movie when you’ve decided a half hour before the end that the story is not going to end well.
SPOILER: I’m not going to give away the ending here, but I will say it ends with a somewhat optimistic twist, though I wouldn’t call it success or victory on anyone’s part.
My biggest problem with Skyline, in fact, is that the movie ends too early. By the end, you have a good idea why the aliens have come, though it doesn’t quite seem like a good reason for an all-out invasion. But the movie ends just before the big climax. There’s been plenty of action, but the plot hasn’t really gone anywhere. The people are trapped. They try to make it out. Bad things happen, but just as things seem to be impossibly turning in their favor, the movie ends. Seriously, it’s as if the producers ran out of money and said: Okay, instead of actually creating the grand confrontation scene to end the movie, let’s just stop filming and the audience will be able to imagine it for themselves. The entire conceit of the plot reaches an apex in the moments before the credits roll, but you have no idea how things will turn out.
Were they really hoping to film a sequel? Perhaps after the success of the low-budget District 9, the produces thought making a cheap sci-fi movie would be like printing money, and it would be easy to greenlight the next part?
I can’t say I’d give them a chance again. If you love science fiction and want a fun ride with dazzling sights and sounds, you could do worse than show up for the bargain matinee of Skyline. But don’t expect a great movie, or even a movie that seems to have a beginning, middle AND an end.